Tag Archive: responsibility


The Guilt of Mass Destruction

For the first time in six years, I walked through my father’s front door. It was early, the sun had not yet risen, and everyone evidently still asleep. I sat at the kitchen counter, my head in my hands, waiting for my father to enter, and for Elizabeth, good neighbor and dear friend that she is, to walk through the front door to share his morning coffee. What would I tell them? Pictures of my mother hung on the walls, and a new shrine to Will was in the corner of the living room, which I could see from where I sat. What would I, could I, say? Dread settled in my stomach.

When my other brother, Ernest, walked into the kitchen, his head was down, his shoulders stooped. He jumped when he looked up and saw me watching him, but quickly recovered and hugged me tighter than I ever remember. “We were so proud,” he said, “when Will got a job at the Pentagon. Father was over the moon! We were so –“ here his voice broke.

“Where are dad and Elizabeth?” I inquired. “Aren’t they usually up by now? I have something I need to tell you all. It’s important.”

“They should be up soon, but you need to be prepared, they’re absolutely beside themselves. They can’t watch the TV without crying every time the terrorists are mentioned. The names of the hijackers were just released.”

I started. “What do you mean? Hijackers? That can’t be true!”

“What else could it be? The passengers who lived all claim that the planes were taken over by foreign men, and though it seemed inconceivable at first, it is the only thing that makes sense,” he ventured, puzzled at my vehement denial.

“No, no, no…that isn’t…that can’t be” I mumbled, brow furrowed, as I paced. “It has to be the planes.” Here, my father stepped into the room. Like Ernest, he wore a shocked expression, but quickly stilled my pacing with an embrace as I continued to mumble. My father inquired as to what was the matter with me, and my brother, bewildered, replied hesitantly that I just kept saying, “It has to be the planes.” My father touched my arm, thinking my denial of the involvement of terrorists was just grief, and said, “Son, it’s hard on all of us. But the men who caused this are dead. Denying their fault doesn’t help anyone.”

“You don’t understand!” I exclaimed. “No one hijacked those planes!”

The three of them led me to the couch, and thinking to console me, told me that the men who caused our my little brother’s death, along with the deaths of almost 3000 other people, were punished in their own deaths, and that there is nothing our anger can do. Their speech calmed me, for reasons other than what they intended; maybe no one would ever know that I was to blame, that I had engineered planes that would fly themselves, and, weighed down by the responsibility, had sold the technology. Maybe they would never know that my work had killed Will.

A knock sounded at the door, and Elizabeth entered. When she saw me, she threw herself into my arms, exclaiming, “Victor, I’m so glad you’re home! It didn’t feel right that you were grieving for Will on your own. All together, we can console each other, and lessen the weight of our individual grief.”

“But it was the planes,” I breathed, in one last half-hearted attempt to divest the truth from myself, to give it away, but it was too quiet for even her too hear.

Author’s Note

One of the most charged moments in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein is when Justine’s life is hanging in the balance. Victor is carrying this guilt, for not only the death of William, but also possibly the death of Justine, and, he comes to see, a potentially endless number of other lives. This guilt of the fallout of our actions on other people is particularly applicable to the 21st century, as everyone is increasingly connected by technology. Now, more than any time in history, the consequences of one person’s actions cannot be isolated to only themselves. I chose to keep the tone of the passage (starting with the last paragraph on page 76, and running to the end of the chapter), as well as the relative plotline, and to change the creation and the fallout action.

Instead of creating a scientific, parodic creature, Victor has created intelligent technology capable of incredible harm. The crime the creature commits, homicide, was one of the worst, if not the worst, crimes a person could commit in the 19th century. Now, terrorism has taken the top spot on the Worst Crimes list, with the terrorism of 9/11 taking the top spot of that list for American citizens. I wanted Victor’s action to have the monumental destruction, the same relative magnitude, in my piece as in the original.

Where the plotline diverges in my piece is in Victor wanting desperately to tell the truth, rather than just prove the innocence of the accused. This is not an explicit purpose of Victor’s in the originally scene, but rather a feeling from the whole novel that Victor is trying to push his responsibility outward from himself.

I wanted this piece to carry the message that we are accountable to the world for our actions, as well as that as humans, we still choose the explanation that seems believable. Even when someone tells what they know to be the truth, if a simpler explanation exists, society will choose the simple, the cut-and-dry. That is a main point in the original passage, and I wanted that to come through in this modern re-telling.

frankie

Before reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, I thought of the Frankenstein monster in purely physical terms. In the attached image, we see the modern archetypal image of Frankenstein’s creation that I have known since childhood, a green-skinned and large-browed giant, standing triumphant over an assortment of severed limbs. The features are not present in the text, yet they are so ingrained in our minds that a disproportionate doll caricature is easily identifiable. The appearance of a person can change much thought about him, and the gradual aesthetic transformation of Shelley’s monster to its modern day archetype reflects the gradual simplification of our relationship with the creature. Not many depictions of Frankenstein’s creation retain his distinctive features from the novel, such as smooth black hair and white teeth (pg 60)*. The man was ugly in some features, yet beautiful on others, suggesting a more fluid and interpretive character. Unlike the novel, the modern myth is obviously hideous and inhuman; the outlandish green skin is easily distinguishable unlike the sickly yellow of the text, and a pronounced brow suggests a lack of intelligence. When we look at this monster, instead of being conflicted, we know what to expect.

The pile of body parts reflects how the modern myth of Frankenstein does keep the artificial man’s propensity for violence, but changes the reason along with his appearance. In the novel, the creature has a distinct revenge motive that is eruditely spelled out to his creator (pg 93). Because Frankenstein’s creation has the capacity for complex thought and emotions, he bears responsibility for his own actions, giving his rebellion moral ambiguity. In contrast, the modern myth of the monster is of a dumb creature that is violent by nature, as represented by the random and haphazard collection of limbs he stands over. Jean-Paul Sartre’s metaphor of the paper knife suggests that, unlike a knife that has the built-in purpose for cutting, man has the ability to choose his purpose after existence. When the creature is presented as hideous and inhuman by nature, he loses the agency that allows the audience to relate with his emotions because the creature is unable to make his own decisions

The simplification of the creature’s dilemma and the audience’s empathy for the creature make for a more appealing icon, one that is simple and easy to grasp. Instead of knowing Frankenstein’s heir for the vengeful relationship and loneliness he felt or the murders that he performed, we know him simply for what he was. By just accepting that the artificial person was born with all of its deficiencies and no ability for moral choice, I assumed the role of Frankenstein when he judged his creation a monster on purely physical terms, leaving it alone to become a monster of a man.

* Corresponds to the Bedford/Saint Martin’s 2nd edition of Frankenstein is being used.