Frankenstein: Gods and Monsters

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. 

Mary Shelley

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.

original_264909_0sB5IeSiKzP7Tjr3Gu1kks6o3Victor 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.

9780143122333It 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?”


Gothic horror: We’re all mad here

Books discussed in this essay: American Gothic Tales (edited by Joyce Carol Oates; 1996). Also see the reading list at the end of the essay.

I was recently reading an anthology of American gothic tales, spanning from the 18th century to contemporary writing. It was a good collection of stories, all suitably weird or creepy, but aside from the earliest stories, I wasn’t sure that they all truly qualified as “gothic.” That got me to thinking about what gothic means exactly and why it is my favorite sub-genre of horror.

02133255b81d234fe909022ed7ae73a8Gothic literature has been around since at least the mid-1700s, and there are a lot of definitions of the term gothic. But academic classifications don’t get at why gothic continues to appeal, why we keep writing and reading gothic stories. The earliest gothic fiction, by authors like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, were by their very nature melodramatic and unrealistic; they made an easy target for parody, such as what Jane Austen does so skillfully in Northanger Abbey, but they set the stage for two-and-a-half centuries of great writing by such diverse authors as Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Rebecca du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice (yes, I’m leaving out the guys, of which there are many, but this is a site about horror by women).

A story has to have three essential ingredients for me to consider it truly gothic.

The first ingredient is by necessity an element of the uncanny. Gothic literature is concerned with the thin spaces, such as between the material and nonmaterial worlds, or between life and death–even the gaps between universes. What lurks in those spaces we don’t know and can’t comprehend. Spirits haunt this realm; supernatural beings lurk in the corners; madness lies within. This is not the place for shiny glass and steel skyscrapers; there are no spaceships or computers here. Gothic fiction stands in opposition to science fiction–it’s about what we cannot know rather than what we can discover, and it has a marked sense of fatalism as opposed to optimism. Neither is it the realm of realistic fiction, of suburbs and apartment buildings and cocktail parties. Gothic fiction eschews everyday experience for the extraordinary, the bizarre and grotesque. It explores ideas and themes which reveal that the universe is a vaster space than we can ever hope to understand.

goreyNext, gothic fiction is linked inextricably with nature. By “nature,” I don’t mean the sunny, flowering, tamed outdoors where we like to have picnics. Rather, the nature of the gothic landscape is wild, implacable, indifferent to our needs and desires, and uncontrollable despite our best efforts. Nature is always encroaching on the human world; that’s why buildings in gothic stories are usually ancient, crumbling, and moldering, and gardens are overgrown; they are constantly threatened with being overtaken by nature. When people enter natural spaces in gothic stories, they find themselves in treacherous, menacing environments: tangled forests, fetid swamps, windswept moors, craggy peaks, bottomless black lakes. The weather is also hostile; usually, it’s foggy or snowing, or a storm is raging. Animals are mysterious, feral, imbued with unsuspected powers.

The natural aspect of gothic fiction reflects the dark region inside our own psyches, as we too are a part of nature, even though we frequently strive to deny it. This is the final ingredient. Gothic literature delves into our depths to disclose the darkness within: the acts we believe ourselves incapable of, the feelings we hope to bury and ignore. It subverts our pretense to civilization and reminds us that we are all susceptible to death and decay, that there is no escaping it. In gothic literature, our inner human nature, like the natural world itself, is uncontrollable and governed by forces we cannot fully comprehend. In gothic fiction, the prevailing emotion is fear, and that quite often leads to madness. Trying to look what we can’t comprehend square in the face is enough to drive anyone insane.

In the gothic worldview, humankind is incapable of complete understanding of the universe; we’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can know or discover everything. The real truth is that we are a very insignificant part of a vast, indifferent universe, a truth that, once acknowledged, might drive you insane. Or it might just set you free.


Gothic horror by women–required reading:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Who Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
  • Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters