Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley is one of my top three favorite books of all time. I absolutely adore it. I specifically adore the 1818 version of the book, where Dr. Frankenstein was less sympathetic and Mary Shelley’s husband wasn’t allowed to assault the novel’s sense of pace by inserting flowery language where it wasn’t needed.
The common synopsis of Frankenstein goes as follows: Dr. Frankenstein is a German scientist who wants to create life with science. He proceeds to do so, and is then separated from his creation. Frankenstein’s monster eventually finds his way back to him after tragically committing a few accidental murders (and eventually one or two intentional murders out of spite). Frankenstein tries to destroy his monster, and hijinks ensue.
It is a simple plot that has been repeated and modified countless times – half of science fiction, which Frankenstein is often credited with inventing, has the “man creates life, it goes badly” plot line. However, I think the legacy of this novel is actually misinterpreted, and I will explain why in the next few paragraphs.
It all starts with Dr Frankenstein and his monster.
Is the monster evil by nature, or is it evil because of how it was raised? This is a huge question, and the answer is actually slightly different between the 1818 version of Frankenstein and the 1831 draft – the 1831 version, by the way, was the most commonly read and referenced version in academic circles until very recently. In the 1831 draft, Victor Frankenstein is portrayed as being a victim of forces beyond his control, and his monster as a result seems predisposed towards evil. The movies based on this draft take it even further, often adding the plot point that the monster was made with a criminal/insane/evil brain. The monster was evil, or at least vicious, by nature – Dr. Frankenstein is a victim.
The 1818 version, however, lays more blame on Frankenstein. There are fewer implications of forces beyond his control – indeed, the 1818 draft emphasizes the idea that Frankenstein is acting against the wishes of the rest of the world. Frankenstein violates the natural order out of his own hubris, creates his monster and, when he sees the beast come to life, freaks out and decides to abandon it. That neglect, and many of Frankenstein’s subsequent actions, causes all the horror of the novel to come. It is all Dr. Frankenstein’s fault.
In both drafts the monster is sympathetic, but he is more so in the first when his father is, well, less so. Having been made by an utterly irresponsible parent, abandoned in the middle of nowhere, and left to fend for himself while being monstrously ugly, our poor creature with the mind of a newborn (but one that matures much faster than a normal human’s) tries to fit in with the world, only to be attacked and injured at every turn simply because of his experience. He has to stalk a family just to learn language, yet even after teaching himself to be civilized within the span of a few months he continues to be rejected. Eventually he comes to the conclusion that since the world will not let him be kind and loved, then he has no option but to hate the world just as much as it hates him. And he starts this vengeance quest by going after Frankenstein’s family.
The monster of the book had to learn to be evil. It was literally beaten into him. That means that the “Man should not play God” theme everyone applies to Frankenstein doesn’t work. Playing God wasn’t what turned the monster evil – neglect was. That thesis statement should be rephrased “Man should not play god badly.”
So what the hell is the theme of Frankenstein? Well… here’s the part where you’re probably going to call me crazy. Victor Frankenstein is a person who has never had a strong female influence in his life. His mother dies when he is young. His fiance is put on a pedestal – Victor talks about her more like she’s some lofty ideal instead of a woman, and he never listens to her advice. And his obsession with creation is specifically concerned with one man – one man – being able to create life by himself. Humans can create life, you know. It’s called procreation. It’s a two person act that requires one man and one woman (or at least cells from one of each). But that’s not good enough for Victor Frankenstein. He wants to create life on his own.
Victor’s act of creation is displayed as unnatural, and one that requires a lot of unnecessary death – “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?” It actually costs the life of other beings to work. Victor’s act of creation actually makes a deficit of life to work – more have to die for one to live.
But he succeeds, and makes life without involving a woman. He claims to be the sole creator of the monster, specifically saying that he has more claim to the monster’s existence than any mother or father. Frankenstein isn’t playing God, but rather stealing the act of childbirth so that a man can be the sole source of life. Yet when that “baby” is “born,” Victor gets immediate Postpartum Depression and abandons the child. In 1800’s terms, Frankenstein took a woman’s power – creating a child – but tried to shirk a woman’s responsibility – raising it. He cut everything the 1800’s western world would consider to be a woman’s role in reproduction, leaving a child that only has the masculine side of parenting – a side that, in practice, is distant and neglectful, as it leaves the monster without any tenderness or nurturing in a cold, judgmental world. Is it any wonder that the result of this heartless act is a hulking murderer?
The monster gives Frankenstein a way out. He asks Frankenstein to make another of his kind – a female monster, specifically, so that way someone can love him and make him happy. Frankenstein almost goes through with it until – and this is actually, literally in the book, mind you – he realizes the female monster could have babies. The idea of the monsters procreating – of the female monster procreating – makes him destroy the new monster before it is brought to life, and inspires his first creation to finish his revenge. The monster proceeds to kill Frankenstein’s wife – which means that if Frankenstein wants to make this all-male utopia, he’ll have to understand that it removes all women, even the idealized yet ultimately powerless woman he finds unobjectionable.
There is a lot more I could add, but I’ve literally written college essays on this topic before, so I’m trying to be brief. In my opinion, Frankenstein is a feminist narrative. The belief that its moral is “Man Should Not Play God” willfully ignores huge elements of the story that contradict it, and also focuses on romanticizing the desire to create life as though it would be some huge discovery. Critics and writers alike ignore the fact that Frankenstein’s creation is not notable for excluding God, but rather for excluding the opposite sex. They ignore the fact that his monster is only evil because Frankenstein, his sole parent, neglects the “feminine” parental duties like nurturing and teaching. They ignore the fact that the monster only dedicates himself to evil wholly when Frankenstein destroys his bride – and Frankenstein only destroys the bride because the bride could have children, a power he lacks. Frankenstein is the male chauvinist who is not satisfied by having significantly more power than the women in his life, and instead tries to remove their power and presence entirely. This insane desire is what destroys him, not the desire to “play God.”
Maybe you think it’s crazy and unfounded. You’re allowed. But Mary Shelley’s mom was one of the first feminists, and she was friends with a bunch of social activist poets. It’s not a complete stretch that her most famous work may actually have a feminist message instead of a religious one.
The Frankenstein monster is a really eloquent and beautifully tragic figure, and in many ways I find him more sympathetic than his creator. That sympathetic nature is thankfully retained by most adaptations, and his patchwork corpse makeup is one of the most unique and iconic monster design ideas ever to be thought of. Here’s to you, Frankenstein’s creature. I hope you find some ugly she-beast to settle down with some day, and get over your father’s terrible, neglectful parenting.