Today’s monster is one of my personal favorites. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster. What sets the mythology of Frankenstein apart from everything else we’ve covered so far is that we know exactly where his origins lie.
In 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel entitled Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in London. She was only 20 years old at the time. When the second edition was published five years later in France, her name was given.
The allusion to Prometheus–not the disappointing Ridley Scott film–refers to a Titan who stole fire from the Olympian gods and gave it to humanity. As punishment, he resides in the underworld where a crow eats his liver every day only to have it grow back and have it eaten all over again. It stands as a lesson of what happens when tampering with things that go against the forces of nature like trying to play God. (See if you can find the connection as we jump into the story.)
When she was 18, she began writing her novel as a friendly competition between her companions to see who could write the best horror story. These friends included her lover and future husband, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori. (If you read Shocktoberfest #2, you might recall Polidori.) After a few days of brainstorming, she dreamt about a scientist who creates a living creature and becomes mortified by his creation. By combining elements from Gothic novels of the past and Romantic themes from her own time, she concocted her novel and created a story that is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the science fiction genre.
When most people hear the name, Frankenstein, the first image that likely comes to mind is a tall Boris Karloff with a flat head, green skin and lots of grunting and moaning like a zombie. While that is understandable given the popularity of the 1931 film, that’s not how the original story actually goes.
According to the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is telling a sea captain on a voyage to the North Pole about how his own impossible dream came true and ended up destroying his life. He reanimates dead human tissue from pieces of dead men he has pieced together. Since replicating minute parts of the human anatomy is difficult, the man is built to be roughly eight feet-tall in order to simplify the process. After the experiment proves to be successful, he experiences shock and disgust at what he’s created instead of the love and beauty he was expecting to feel, so he abandons his creation and the monster also disappears out of grief from rejection by his maker. However, the monster does eventually track him down, and to Victor’s surprise, the creature eloquently professes the sadness of his own existence and how it tortures his soul that his hideousness has rendered him a monster to any would-be friend. He argues that as a living being, he deserves happiness just like everyone else and demands that Victor create a companion for him under the condition that he and his mate will flee into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Fearing that creating a mate for the creature could result in a breed of monsters that would plague mankind, Victor destroys his female creation in front of the monster, and the monster retaliates by killing those closest to Victor, including his wife, Elizabeth. Out for revenge, Victor chases the monster all the way to the North Pole yet does not kill him. After taken ill from his exposure during the chase, Victor dies aboard the ship, and the monster–a stowaway–mourns the death of his creator and finds no peace in his demise. Ashamed of his crimes, he burns himself and Victor on a floating pyre in order to ensure that no one else will ever know that he existed.
Some differences from the 1931 film are small; i.e. Dr. Frankenstein is named Henry instead of Victor, the experiment is performed in Switzerland instead of Germany, the year is 1894 instead of 1818. Most of those changes don’t really matter, but the legendary film does deviate quite a bit from the source material. The monster cannot speak and behaves more like a frightened child, Dr. Frankenstein has a hunchback assistant named Fritz (not Igor) who is responsible for the experiment’s failure by providing him with the brain of convicted felon, the townsfolk organize to destroy the monster by chasing him into a windmill and set it ablaze, and Henry Frankenstein survives the attack to end the film with his father toasting the hope of having a future grandchild.
Parts from the original novel eventually were in the 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. The creature can now speak and wants a mate. After she rejects him, the theme of the horror of his existence is also brought into play. But that is really about all there was. Universal Pictures seemed to want to continue with the tone they had set with the first film and still allow the protagonist characters to survive.
One quick note before we look at the cultural significance of this classic tale; some have argued–including me at one point–that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster but of the doctor. However, I’d like to make it known that since Dr. Frankenstein is the “father” of the creature, he is also, for all intents and purposes, a Frankenstein as well. The name, Adam, is more symbolic. In the novel, the monster refers to himself as “the Adam of your labours” while speaking to Victor.
With the success of the films, Frankenstein became a household name, but as the years passed, the monsters of yesteryear were not seen as so scary anymore and became comedic versions of themselves. Frankenstein was parodied in television shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family and was usually either a bumbling boob or a mute drone. He was also turned into a cereal mascot as Frankenberry. And Mel Brooks even wrote a comedic sequel to the 1931 film and made Young Frankenstein in 1974.
What holds the story of Frankenstein up after nearly two centuries is that regardless of how he’s portrayed, he serves as a reminder of the horrors of our own hubris and how even our greatest intentions can lead to disastrous results. And of course, the whole idea of creating a living creature from dead parts is absolutely ghastly.
Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot in my heart for Adam Frankenstein. He’s hideous and violent, but underneath it all, he’s a very sad and lonely man who only wants the basic joys that we all want. Despite our reactions toward his appearance, he’s not so unlike us beneath it all.