Frankenstein's Monster


"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken" (Shelley 9). Mary Shelley reflects in her introduction to the 1831 edition on her first vexing image of the creation of a monster. Haunted by her own imagination, she wishes to return the banality of a ghost story, "O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night" (10)! Both Romantic and Gothic, her would-be ghost story has assumed a life of its own, inspiring countless retellings and permutations in the artistic and popular imagination.

The novel is told through layers of narration in an epistolary form not uncommon to her day. Victor Frankenstein, father to that loathsome creature, must finally open his soul to a kindred spirit in hopes of unburdening his fallen conscience. Thus we begin at the end of his journey through the frame narrator Robert Walton, aboard a ship attempting to reach the North Pole. In a letter to his sister, Walton proclaims what has driven him to the frozen hinterlands, "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death . . " (16). This bold Romantic drive, a desire strong enough to belittle the fear of death and to seek what is original and farthest from human experience, binds the two in a shared disposition toward the world. Victor, near death from chasing after his prodigy has words of caution to his uninitiated interrogator, "'Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me, -let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!'" (28).

Victor, as he recounts his sufferings to the eager listener delves into the source of his inspiration, a M. Waldman, professor of chemistry at the University of Ingolstadt. Waldman said in an early lecture about the modern scientist, chemist more specifically, "'They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows'" (47-8). Recalling his reaction to the lecture, Victor says, "I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy... I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" (48).

With an increasing interest in physiology and anatomy, Victor forsakes everything, even his own health to study long into the night. The dead are to him but the means to regain life. This is his primary transgression and implies an argument with death, "To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death . . . I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body" (51). Not only has he no respect for natural order, he has assumed a monomaniacal persona, fearless of God and Judao-Christian morality. Divorced from any respect for people's final resting places, he has been consumed in an unholy enterprise. "Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnal-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain" (52). Notice how James Whale emphasizes the significance of digging in a Christain cemetary in his Frankenstein (1931). The pronounced crucifix and an image of the Grim Reaper reinforce the taboos associated with violating sacrosanct burial grounds.

At the moment he animates his patchwork of flesh he recoils in horror. "How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!-Great God! 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; but these luxuriences only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips" (57).

Now that Victor has succeeded in his project, he fails to reconcile his creation and "father" it properly. It is this act of rejection that motivates the monster on a destructive path. Though the monster has intelligence and learns language, literature and politics while spying on the De Lacey family, they too reject him and this again results in destruction. With the prejudice of sight, people have no choice but to reject him as an unnatural, monstrous "other". Victor must bear the guilt of the death of others at the hands of his monster. Victor loses any chance of restoring his own happiness as it claims the lives of those dearest to him, especially his intended- Elizabeth. Sworn to see to its destruction, Victor chases the monster to the ends of the earth, where he is revived long enough to relate his story to the last witness-Walton. Victor passes away, unable to reclaim his monster. Walton witnesses the "wretch" in one last scene, hovering over the body of his creator. The monster swears to consume himself in a funeral pile and departs, "borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance" (223).

This story has become the archetype for many subsequent tales of the mad scientist and his creation(s): the monster of misguided science tormenting its creator. Frankenstein has enjoyed an afterlife in countless stage productions and this century scores of movie adaptations have reshaped the story to stir our collective imaginations. Indeed the monster has taken the name of his creator, owing much to movie posters that invariably display a title declaring- Frankenstein- and show the object of our fascination- the monster. The addition of extra characters to add dialogue and to help "tell" a story on the screen undoubtedly makes the monster more of a spectacle and turns Victor's solitary act of creation into a shared one. The monster usually lacks any intelligence or subtlety and, as if enacting an understood ritual, society anxiously destroys this detestable creature.