Mary Wollstonecraft's novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front both ask us to comes to terms with what is essential about human nature and the ways on which the terrible technologies that human build to bridge that chasm between life and death can come to redefine what it means to be human. But while Shelley's book suggests that there may still be hope for us, Remarque's writing - coming from a later generation and in a time of war - suggests that it may be too late.
We may begin with an examination of Shelley's work. Often considered to be a work of Gothic fiction, it is a much more finely and complexly crafted novel than are most examples of this genre - so much more skillfully formed that in many way it transcends the genre entirely. While on one level the novel (published in 1818) is in fact a story about a prototypical "mad scientist" who creates a monster that eventually kills him, it is also a serious investigation into the nature of the human soul. Shelley clearly intended that the true level of horror in the book should not be this death but the investigation of what it means to be human and the terrible things that we might each do - and in turn have done to us - if we were somehow to lose that quality of ourselves that sets us off from all other living creatures as uniquely human.
Shelley's novel investigates some of the most important questions that humans face: Are people born innocent or corrupted? (And whichever answer is given to this question, does it apply only to humans or to other forms of life as well?) Are men inherently jealous of the feminine power of creation and so do they - either naturally or because they have been taught to do so - yearn to possess that female power by overpowering the women in their lives?
Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus is in fact a combination of Gothic horror story (a popular enough genre during Shelley's time)...