Rethinking Frankenstein's Monster
Now celebrating its 200th anniversary, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a revolutionary text that pioneered the sci-fi genre. On the surface, it’s a novel about a scary monster, but the sympathetic description of a soulful creature makes us rethink the label.
This year marks the bicentennial of the publication of one of the most enduring works in literature:
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Shelley’s 1818 novel was revolutionary in its depiction of science and religion and
served as a pioneer text in the sci-fi genre.
On the surface, it’s a novel about a scary monster, but her sympathetic description of
a soulful Creature makes us rethink who we label as the “monster.”
Remember, this is not Frankenstein.
This is Dr. Frankenstein was the scientist who created
the nameless creature.
Boris Karloff’s depiction of a tall, shambling, mute man with bolts sticking out of his neck
has become the classic image of the monster.
But Shelley’s original description is actually much more macabre.
Shelly writes, quote, “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath;
his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness...his watery
eyes...his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.”
Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein assembled his Creature from materials found in “charnel
houses,” the vaults where corpses were kept.
But he also took bits from “the slaughter-house.”
So, yes, her Creature is made of both human and animal parts.
But here’s the thing.
The Creature definitely looks scary, but just because something looks scary, doesn’t mean
Shelley’s original creation is a highly intelligent vegetarian who hates the idea
of harming another living creature.
At the beginning of the novel he wants nothing more than to be accepted and loved by another
Ironically, it’s the monstrous treatment he receives from humans that drives him to
Dr. Frankenstein abandons the Creature at the moment of his animation, letting what
basically amounts to a newborn wander into the darkness alone to fend for himself.
The tension between Frankenstein and the Creature represents the struggle between parent and
child, self and other, love and hate, science and morality, abandonment and acceptance.
It’s a warning, to treat all living things with respect, or else.
200 year old spoiler alert— Shelley’s novel ends with Frankenstein and his entire
family dead, and the Creature himself presumably committing suicide.
What led Mary Shelley to explore these dark and tragic themes?
Mary’s life was plagued by death.
Her own mother died from delivery complications only a few days after giving birth.
Shelley would mourn the woman she never knew for the rest of her life.
Shelley’s first child with her married lover Percy died shortly after birth in 1815.
The following Year was known as the “Year Without a Summer”
due to the lingering effects of the eruption of Mount Tambora.
Stuck indoors, Shelley and her friends entered into a “dare” to pen the most terrifying
story they could imagine.
Shelley’s story came to her in a nightmare.
In 1818, she finished Frankenstein, and was finally able to get married—but only because
Percy’s pregnant wife committed suicide.
Mary’s second child Clara, also died that year, and their third child, William followed
Clara to the grave in 1819.
Then, just four years later, in 1822, Percy’s drowned body washed ashore.
All that death and grief may be why when editing Frankenstein for an 1831 edition, Shelley
made Dr. Frankenstein’s decision to form the Creature a matter of “fate.”
This change makes the Creature more of a monster as his violence and desire to destroy Frankenstein
becomes his “destiny.”
Shelley’s original text, and all those that follow in its shadow, makes us ask, “Who
is the real monster in this story?”
We are constantly updating the Frankenstein myth and the themes of life, loss, and monstrosity
Shelley wove into the original text as a way to explore our definitions of humanity.
Interpretations like Ex Machina explore the intimate, and complicated, relationship between
the creator and the created, and asks the audience to consider if robotic consciousness
The film Splice, looks at how engineering human and animal DNA to design an entirely
new lifeform can result in dangerous, unforeseen complications—even if the creator shelters,
educates, and loves their creation.
Frankenweenie, retells the Frankenstein story as a young boy’s decision to resurrect his
dead dog, emphasizing the devastation, and desperation, that comes from loss.
The 2017 comic series Victor LaValle’s Destroyer updates Shelley’s story for the current
moment—adding important conversations about race, gender, immigration, police brutality,
social injustice, and the proliferation of violence in the modern world.
All of these interpretations show sympathy for both the creatures and their tragically
Despite all the destruction that comes from scientific experimentation in these adaptations,
I don’t believe Shelley intended her original story to scare readers into believing all
science is evil or monstrous.
I do think she warns us to consider the repercussions of technological and scientific advancement.
Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Shelley’s novel calls us to be accountable for what we create, and what might be destroyed
in the process.
The Great American Read is a new series on PBS about our love of reading.
The show leads up to a vote on America’s favorite novel, and you dear viewers, are
the ones who get to choose the winner.
More Episodes (33)
Unlocking the Mystery of Loch NessOctober 18, 2020
How Gargoyles Became MonstersOctober 18, 2020
The Original Urban Legend: Spring-Heeled JackOctober 18, 2020
The Origins of the Zombie, from Haiti to the U.S.October 16, 2020
Jorōgumo: The Deadly Spider Woman from Yokai LoreJuly 29, 2020
Bunyip: Australia’s Mysterious Amphibian MonsterJuly 29, 2020