This essay discusses Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). There are spoilers.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel, originated many horror tropes that we now take for granted: the obsessive mad scientist, resurrection of the dead, the misunderstood monster, and the ultimate folly of playing god. Originally published in 1818, Frankenstein — along with Dracula, published in 1897 — bracketed the nineteenth century with iconic works that established the modern horror genre.
I have previously written about Frankenstein’s origins during a cold summer Mary Shelley spent with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Each was challenged to come up with a ghost story, and that is where Mary first conceived Frankenstein’s monster. She published the first edition anonymously. A second edition, this time bearing Mary Shelley’s name, along with an introduction by her husband, was published in 1823. Following the death of Percy Shelley, Mary revised the text and released it as a third edition, published in 1831.
Mary Shelley wrote about the first edition of her book:
‘If there were ever to be another edition of this book, I should re-write these first two chapters. The incidents are tame and ill arranged – the language sometimes childish. – They are unworthy of the rest of the narration.’
For the third edition, she fulfilled that intention. However, despite her claim in the 1831 Introduction that she had “changed no portion of the story nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances,” she made other changes that impacted the overall theme of the story. The third edition places more emphasis on the now overused warning against man playing God. The original story, though, with less emphasis on religion, might also be read as an indictment of bad fathers and men who try to take women’s place in the role of reproduction.
Victor Frankenstein, one of the most dislikable characters in literature, is a full-on narcissist in any version. He takes on the challenge of creating new life out of an obsessive need to prove himself as a scientist, but he refuses to take responsibility for his creation. He abandons the monster he made and runs away home. The monster follows and, maddened by his isolation and disillusionment with humanity, seeks revenge by murdering those closest to Frankenstein. For Frankenstein, the murders are horrifying only in how they impact him, not for the loss of innocent life. Even when the monster tells him, “I will be with you on your wedding night,” it never occurs to Frankenstein that the monster means to come after Elizabeth, supposedly the great love of his life but really only another mirror in which he can admire himself. Instead, he assumes that the monster means to attack him.
Compared to Frankenstein, the monster is a more admirable, and more understandable, character. His story, at the center of the book, is one of awakening, learning, rejection, and isolation. It parallels a loss of faith in God. When he is created, the monster is a blank slate. “Who am I?” he asks, repeatedly. As he goes out into the world — alone, remember, because his “parent” has abandoned him — the world rejects him solely based on his appearance. Because he looks like a monster, everyone who sees him assumes he is a monster. He becomes entirely alone.
It didn’t have to be that way. The cottagers he spies on model for him how to be loving, kind, and compassionate. But when he reveals himself to them, they reject him. He is shot, beaten, and chased away. He believes he has no self worth. Even after declaring his hatred for the human species, the monster saves a young girl, but he is punished for his good deeds. Is it any wonder that he develops feelings of hatred and bitterness, that he cannot control his rage? The monster is made, not born, by his experiences. Monsters — human monsters — are made in this way every day.
The monster is denied his humanity. Even the one who gave him life doesn’t care for him and cannot answer his fundamental question: “Why am I here?” This drives him to madness and echoes the human condition. We are all in this same boat. If we can’t answer that question for ourselves, we too might go mad.
The horror of Frankenstein’s monster lies not in his monstrousness, but in his thwarted humanity. The same capacity for monstrousness lurks in us all.
“Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?”