Nature is one of the most powerful forces on earth, one that suffers under human action. Despite it’s power, humans tend to try to re-create nature through cloning, and creating false environments. The result of this can have terrible consequences, as shown in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the play A Number by Caryl Churchill. These texts explore human’s curiosity about nature, and how humans will to play God, can end in disasters for both themselves and the people surrounding them.
Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley, is a novel that stretches across multiple genres including sci-fi, horror and romantic. It’s a novel inspired by a dream, that Shelley described as seeing “a hideous phantasm of a man” that was “working of some powerful engine”1; assumingly it was electricity that was keeping this man alive. Shelley refers to the dream as “frightful” indicating that to her personally, it’s a horror novel. The novel itself can be read from a feminist point of view as the novel explores men’s distrust towards women, as Victor, a while straight male character, ideas ultimately lead to all the female characters deaths. Her writing is argued to have been influenced by her mother, who was an advocate of women’s rights, despite her passing eleven days after Shelley’s birth. Romantic writers, such as Shelley, tend to portray nature as the greatest and most perfect force in the universe. This is evident in Frankenstein, as she uses the adjective ‘sublime’ to convey the unfathomable power and flawlessness of the natural world. The ‘sublime’ is a literary concept used to describe both terror and beauty when we encounter something in nature. Despite nature being portrayed as being flawless, the character Victor contrastingly describes people as being “half made up” (Letter 4.14)2. His point being that human petty concerns and countless flaws such as vanity and prejudice, in comparison to nature, weigh down beings. A major flaw of human beings, especially the characters portrayed in Frankenstein, is their capability of learning, and how to use their knowledge of science and biology in order to ‘play God’ and create a living creature. However their knowledge resulted in crises and suffering due to an imperfect mans disturbance of nature’s perfection. Victor attempts to discover the “mysteries of creation”(3.33)2, to “pioneer a new way”(3.15)2 but penetrating the “citadel of nature”(2.10)2. Nature prevails in the end, and Victor and the ones he loved end up dead due to his misguided attempt to manipulate the power of nature. The theme of nature played such a wide part of the novel due to Shelley’s own opinions on humans essentially going too far, she once said that it would be “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world”3.
The Sublime in Frankenstein is used as a pattern rather than a symbol. It starts Victor’s discovery, as seeing lightning destroy a tree makes him want to study electricity. As well as offering him a sense of comfort, as he thinks that nature is mourning his little brother. When Victor sees nature and its power his first thought is to ‘conquer it’ which is the wrong idea.
A Number, written by Caryl Churchill is a play that fuelled the controversy of human cloning, leaving readers to think about the consequences, the fact that Salter’s ‘sons’ end up dead, but also the positive side, his other ‘sons’ or clones are still alive and he could form a relationship with them. Churchill’s play, published in 2002 was a breakthrough year for genetic engineering, and cloning. Two new books were published about genetic engineering, as well as the news of the famous clone sheep Dolly, developing arthritis early on, which lead to the public rising questions of whether genetic engineering and cloning is ethical, or if clones could even live a normal life without any complications. The ethical and moral questions surrounding cloning have been in public view for a number of centuries, as I mentioned earlier, Mary Shelley had an opinion on humans “mocking” nature. As Guardian journalist Michael Billington explains, it is a play that “deals with ecological catastrophe and here memorably implies that scientific progress is in danger of eliminating the very qualities that make us human.”4 The play as well as the novel of Frankenstein surrounds us with the question of whether the line being human nature and nurture has become blurred to the point of it being hard for us to distinguish the difference, and what are the consequences of this? With scientific progress becoming more developed, and robots now achieving citizenship, such as the robot Sophia who gained Saudi Arabian citizenship, the argument of what is human appears to be more significant in mainstream society. With Sophia the robot already obtaining more rights than female citizenships of Saudi Arabia, as she does not have to conform to the conservative dress law.
Posthumanism is a theory that questions boundaries, agencies, responsibility and materiality. As well as leading to us questioning what our daily encounters mean? What is the distinction between human and non-human?5 A Number can easily be read from a Posthumanism point of view, as many of the characters wouldn’t be considered fully human, more than human, a mixture of cyborg and human. Could we be living in a posthuman society already? The majority of readers have mobile phones, without it, we would feel lost, it’s almost an extension of our arm. How is cloning different? Cloning may not seem moral to many, but with media affecting how we think and how we act, maybe cloning is happening in a different way than the one shown in A Number. The play portrays a futuristic scenario, as it captures family dynamics as old as humanity. The characterisations of B1 and B2 led to critics noting biblical analogies, such as Cain and Abel, whilst Salter’s relationship with his children have comparisons to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) and Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605). Churchill also poses the question of whether the label of ‘parent’ should be applied due to genetics or because of how one behaves. In the play’s final scene, Salter meets Michael Black, which provides a conclusion to Churchilll’s exploration of father and son relationships. Michael shares with Salter some scientific facts as they both struggle to communicate:
“We’ve got ninety-nine percent the same genes as any other person… we’ve got thirty percent the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all? I love about the lettuce. It makes me feel I belong”6(5.62)
As Michael lacks traditional family ties, he looks elsewhere to find where he belongs. Through A Number, Churchill pushes us as readers to question how and where we belong, and how much we value all our connections to living beings.
In comparison, Frankenstein, can be read from an eco-critical view point. Eco-criticism is defined as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” by Cheryll Glotfelty7. Victor, in chapter 4, asks
“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow”(Chapter 4)2.
This passage teaches readers what happens when we essentially ‘get too big for our boots’. We have no idea of how many monsters have been created in labs, with today’s science making all sorts of creatures, including a rat with a human ear. Critic, Lawrence Buell, recognises Shelley’s statement about science when he states that literary achievements “are mirrors of both cultural promise and of cultural failure”8. Science can be a good thing and cure diseases allowing us to live life longer. But it can also be dangerous is used or practiced incorrectly. Although weird weather inspired authors like Shelley to write about the dangers and consequences of humans and nature, it also pushed people to think about the potential consequences of new technologies.
Both texts explore how the raising of a child is as important as creating a life. The children, or creations in both texts have been abandoned leaving them to fight on their own. The creature in Frankenstein seeks knowledge and guidance from a family in a village, but then seeks revenge on his creator and ends up killing innocent lives. Bernand, in A Number, similarly seeks revenge on his father and kills B2, the ‘son’ Salter bonded with most. The theme here appears to be that naturally, we are monsters with the desire to kill and harm, but due to nurturing by our families and society, we are conditioned to hide these feelings and to not act upon them. A poignant moment from A Number, evokes the loneliness we all face at one point, but from a child’s loneliness without his father as Bernard recalls calling for his father in the night:
“I’d be shouting, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!’ I want to know could you hear me or not… I didn’t dare get out of bed to go and see, because if you weren’t there, that would be terrifying, and if you were there, that would be worse”6(2.31-32)
This leads to Salter thinking about his motivations and whether he done right. Despite all three clones presented being the same naturally, they’re different due to their nurturing with Juliet Wittman describing the difference as “Bernard the clone is insecure and afraid, not least of twisted and homicidal original son Bernard. And then appears clone son number three, who turns out to be a completely different kettle of fish.”9
Nature is a literary theme that has been used throughout centuries in literature. The main argument being humans interactions with nature and the effects it has. These two particular texts explore humans attempting to be as powerful as nature, leading to terrible consequences, ultimately death. With science continually evolving, and new technologies being produced everyday, how far will it be until humans will lose the competition with nature? The majority of us rely upon technology, even considering it natural to watch TV and be on our phones 24/7. Like Shelley stated before, humans may go to far and destroy ourselves unintentionally.