The Creature Comforts
A Monster’s Many Guises
In the nearly 200 years since he first entered our cultural lexicon, the Creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has taken on a life of his own, devolving from a speaking, deeply feeling being to a mute, green-skinned serial murderer. Meanwhile, his creator, Victor Frankenstein, has remained the archetypal mad scientist. This map traces their intersecting paths and reveals some of their fabled and real-life forebears.
Gothic fiction, of which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a prime example, concerns itself with doubles and the dual nature of humanity (good vs. evil, creator vs. destroyer). The novel’s two protagonists—the student of alchemy and chemistry and the Creature he brings to life—represent that duality. What begins as Victor Frankenstein’s experiment to reanimate lifeless matter climaxes with his creation of a physically hideous, unreformable being who, though in possession of refined emotion and deep sensitivity, is completely misunderstood, rejected and unloved.
One interpretation of this duality sees Frankenstein and the Creature as father and son. The powerful theme of the father who loses or rejects his son recurs widely in fiction and myth. In the Bible alone, it surfaces in God’s expulsion of his first creation, Adam, from paradise; in dutiful Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac; and in Jesus’s pained words on the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” In Shelley’s novel, both Frankenstein and his “son” suffer for their sins, and each one’s behavior escalates the other’s agony. The Creature is often considered Frankenstein’s alter ego, and perhaps unsurprisingly, we often mistakenly refer to this unnamed being by his creator’s name.
Mary Shelley described Frankenstein as her “hideous progeny,” and in charting her inspirations and influences one may surmise that her lover and later husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, would have sired that progeny. Indeed, she likely based her titular protagonist in part on Percy, a literary and political radical and visionary, and certainly infused the book with emotions sourced from her own experience. In contrast to the book’s longevity, for example, the Shelleys had little success with their real children; only two of the six produced by their union and Percy’s first marriage lived to adulthood. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after giving birth to Mary, and Mary’s half-sister committed suicide. Such copious death brought Mary lifelong anguish. Some of these tragedies haunt the novel, deepening the relationship between Frankenstein and his misbegotten Creature.
Aside from evoking the author’s personal life, Frankenstein explores several general concerns of her time, including class equality, the social causes of violence and the limits of science. Her wretched Creature also embodies many themes of Romantic writing, such as alienation, idealism, education and the violation of social norms. The novel suggests that even the greatest, best-intentioned intellectual and creative investigation is potentially destructive.
The ancient tale of a golem may have inspired Mary Shelley in crafting her Creature. In the best-known version, a man-size clay figure is brought to life by 16th-century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, to protect the city’s Jews from persecution. In some retellings, the golem begins a vengeful quest after being spurned and rejected. Shelley’s Creature in Frankenstein is likewise rejected by his creator and turns against humankind. When Victor Frankenstein refuses to make a bride for him, the Creature vows to “be with you on your wedding night,” and on that night he murders Victor’s bride. Gripped by the tragedy of his own existence, the Creature later determines to destroy himself.
In Paul Wegener’s 1920 German expressionist film The Golem: How He Came Into the World, the golem rebels against his creator, sets fire to the Jewish ghetto and goes on a murderous rampage. Wegener’s golem is finally disabled when a little girl removes from its chest the amulet that has animated it. In modern-day Prague the golem is a ubiquitous (if unlikely) mascot: Shops for tourists sell miniature golem talismans that ironically resemble the Frankenstein monster.
Prometheus, the Greek Titan who, according to some versions of his myth, created man and gave him the gift of fire, and Victor Frankenstein, the “Modern Prometheus” named in the subtitle of Frankenstein, each presume to remake humanity by unleashing forbidden powerful forces. Both suffer the consequences of their hubris. When Prometheus recklessly defies the gods, chief deity Zeus chains him to a rock, where his liver is torn out and eaten by an eagle, only to regenerate each night and be eaten again the next day. When Frankenstein defies the natural order of things, he suffers the deaths of his youngest brother, his bride and his best friend, and his life becomes a torment before he also succumbs.
Frankenstein and Prometheus endow inanimate beings with life and imitate the work of the gods, but the materials they use are poor and flawed. Frankenstein’s materials—dead body parts—are corrupt, and Prometheus uses earth and mud. The problem of overreaching into the realm of the divine has inspired other artists and writers—notably the Romantics, including Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose poem Prometheus Unbound (1820) portrays the god as a wily rebel who challenges the autocratic Zeus.
As science and technology steadily advance, characters both actual and fictitious appear on the fringes. Real-life examples include 15th-century German Swiss physician Paracelsus, with his claims of creating a homunculus (i.e., a tiny, fully formed human being) outside the female body, and 20th-century inventor Nikola Tesla and his plans to develop a death ray. Their fictional counterparts extend from Dr. Faustus and his devil’s bargain to Dr. Walter Bishop on the TV series Fringe—and beyond. Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is the archetypal fringe (and mad) scientist, equipped with dangerous knowledge and a misguided belief in his own absolute power over nature.
The mad scientists in Frankenstein movies also explore the fringe science of their time. In James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935), for example, Dr. Pretorius grows his creatures “like cultures” in glass jars, practicing a biological science that recalls Dr. Jacques Loeb’s controversial in vitro experiments of the early 20th century. And today we add the prefix Franken- to such artificial, modified creations as bioengineered plants and animals, including the genetically altered salmon dubbed Frankenfish. The signifier serves as an informal warning label, indicating that the science involved may yet turn against us.
A possible real-life analogue for Mary Shelley’s mad scientist Victor Frankenstein is 18th-century physician and physicist Luigi Galvani, who “animated” dead matter—or, rather, stimulated muscle contractions by applying electrical current, a phenomenon that became known as galvanism. Shelley cites Galvani’s work and related observations from a family friend, Enlightenment physician Erasmus Darwin, as influences in her introduction to Frankenstein’s 1831 edition: “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together and endued with vital warmth.”
Other influences may have included Shelley’s own doctor, Henry Cline, who received newspaper coverage in 1814 for reviving a comatose sailor, and James Lind (a friend of Shelley’s husband), an eccentric natural philosopher who experimented with Galvani’s “animal electricity.” And in the novel itself, Frankenstein recounts his own obsession with such unconventional medieval and Renaissance “scientists” as the alchemist (and Catholic saint) Albertus Magnus, the occultist physician Paracelsus, and the magician and occult religious philosopher Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, whose work (which includes a treatise on the superiority of women) Frankenstein’s father dismisses as “sad trash.”
The iconic image of Victor Frankenstein’s unfortunate Creature—flat-headed, heavy-browed, bolt-necked and scar-riddled—is that popularized by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein. Whale, Karloff and makeup artist James Pierce created a monster altogether different from the literate, verbal and sensitive Creature that Mary Shelley imagined. While he’s no stiff-limbed ogre, Shelley’s Creature is nonetheless grotesque—she describes him as eight feet tall and hideously ugly, with black lips and yellowish skin.
Whale was an accomplished visual artist, and his sophisticated compositional sense contributed to the striking look of Frankenstein and his other films, which include Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and the musical Show Boat. Whale was openly gay (unusual in 1930s Hollywood), a World War I veteran and a former prisoner of war. His experiences in combat and as an outsider likely lent gravity and depth to Frankenstein. Despite their differing depictions, Whale and Shelley effectively communicate the suffering of their man-created abominations, who are shunned by everyone they encounter and burdened with a half-life they did not want and ultimately reject.