Frankenstein is one of those stories that you learn about as a kid but can’t remember how you learned about it. At least it was for me.
We know he—the Monster—is big and green and has a squarish head and scars. We know he was dead and brought to life by a mad doctor. We sense that he’s not exactly evil, but misunderstood. At least that’s what I recall remembering.
You see, I never actually read Mary Shelley’s frightening novel until a few weeks ago. Nor had I ever seen James Whale’s classic 1931 movie Frankenstein featuring the legendary Boris Karloff, or any Frankenstein movie for that matter. (I have since watched Kenneth Branagh’s dark adaptation, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.)
That I had never read Shelley’s fine book—Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus—is a source of mild embarrassment for me, since I consider myself a student of literature, which I studied as both an undergraduate and graduate student.
Having finally read the book, here are six things I learned.
1. There Is No Igor
As I was reading Shelley’s work, I kept waiting for Igor to appear. One of the few things I knew was that Dr. Victor Frankenstein has an odd-looking, hunch-backed assistant named Igor he commands around as he constructs his creation in his laboratory. But early in the story the Monster comes to life and Frankenstein flees and there’s not a word of anyone named Igor.
I thought perhaps I missed it. After all, Shelley breezes past the creation of the Monster in just a page or so. I went back and read it. Nope, no Igor. I thought maybe he’d show up later in a flashback or Frankenstein’s attempt to construct a new Monster. Nope. No Igor.
In fact, there is no Igor in the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein or Branagh’s 1994 version. Apparently it was not until the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein that an assistant named “Ygor” appears, whose name was later changed to Igor in later films. (There was an assistant in the first two Frankenstein movies, but his name was Fritz and he was inspired from 19th century plays.)
2. Mary Wollstonecraft Died Giving Birth to Mary Shelley
I almost didn’t share this because I’m so embarrassed I didn’t know it—but Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous British philosopher and women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Shelley.
Apparently the placenta broke during the birth. An infection developed and the famous libertarian feminist died of septicaemia on 10 September, 1797.
It makes me a little sad to know that Wollstonecraft never learned her daughter would become one of the most famous novelists of the ages. Something tells me she would have been proud.
3. It’s Anti-Death Penalty
Okay, I admit it. I have no idea how Shelley actually felt about the death penalty. But the novel’s example of capital punishment is hardly a ringing endorsement of the policy. After Frankenstein creates his Monster, we learn that his younger brother William—who is only a child—is killed while playing in the forest.
Frankenstein has his suspicions about who committed the dastardly deed, but what we see next is as chilling as anything in Shelley’s book. When William cannot be found, a search party is sent to find him. William’s nanny Justine, an adopted member of the Frankenstein family, discovers a locket of William’s but no sign of his body; when William’s dead body is later found and Justine is found with the locket, she is blamed for his death. Charges are brought against her. She is found guilty on the flimsiest of evidence and swiftly hanged.
4. Shelley Conceived the Story After a Nightmare—at Age 18
One of the coolest parts of Frankenstein is the story behind the book.
Imagine being 18 years old and hanging out at Lord Byron’s estate in Geneva, Switzerland. That’s exactly what Mary Shelley was doing in the summer of 1816, shortly after eloping to Italy with Percy Shelley (a married man) when she was just 16 years old.
One night while hanging out Lord Byron proposed that each of the four people present “write a ghost story.” Every morning she was asked, “Have you thought of a story.” Each morning Shelley was forced to reply with a “mortifying negative.”
Finally one night when she struggled to sleep her imagination took hold.
“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—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 handiwork horror-stricken.”
Frankenstein and his Monster were born.
5. The Monster Is Not ‘Sympathetic’ and Frankenstein Is Not the Villain
So, this idea exists that Frankenstein’s Monster is some gentle, stupid, and misunderstood creature. He wasn’t actually the villain, the modern interpretation goes, and I basically always assumed this was true, having not read the story. Movies I saw of Frankenstein’s Monster—such as Monster Squad (1987) and Van Helsing (2004)— always showed him in a sympathetic light, and that was kind of the vibe I got from Boris Karloff’s Monster.
This was not the vibe I got from Shelley’s Monster. At all. First of all, Shelley’s Monster is not stupid. He tells his story over several chapters, and one quickly realizes he’s highly literate (he reads Plutarch!). The Monster doesn’t mumble words like a dumb child or Simple Jack; he speaks eloquently. He possesses reason.
The Monster is angry, however, that he is different. He’s ugly. He has no one and nothing.
“I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property,” he explains to Victor.
Indeed, even his creator despises him.
“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on,” the Monster explains near the end of the book.
This is no doubt why some have interpreted the Monster in a sympathetic light. And in some ways he is a sympathetic figure. We watch as the Monster watches a poor family of villagers and discovers he’s not like them.
“I admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them, except through means which I obtained by stealth, when I was unseen and unknown, and which rather increased than satisfied the desire I had of becoming one among my fellows.”
We watch the Monster plead with Victor to have him create a female companion.
“I am alone and miserable, man will not associate with me, but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me,” he tells Victor. “My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.”
Readers can identify with the Monster’s plight. After all, who among us would wish to spend life alone? The problem is, as I noted, the creature possesses reason. He knows right from wrong. Good from evil. And throughout the novel, he commits evil act after evil act, even admitting to Victor that he killed the child William.
“Boy, you will never see your father again,” the Monster tells the child, “you must come with me.”
Victor Frankenstein is not the villain of the story. His mistakes are far more human. They come from the unintended consequences of his creation and the fear that prevents him from addressing and confessing his mistake for most of the novel.
The Monster’s deeds are far more monstrous, and they are committed not by a bumbling, stupid, child-like creature, but by an intelligent and selfish fiend.
6. Frankenstein's Monster Is a Metaphor for the State
I have no idea whatsoever if Shelley saw it, but her story is a wonderful metaphor for the state.
Using the power of modern science, Dr. Frankenstein creates a powerful Monster that he quickly realizes he cannot control. Frankenstein’s motives are pure when he brings the creature to life, but the Monster takes on a life of his own and a series of dark consequences follow. Most frightening of all, Frankenstein realizes he cannot turn off his own creation. If this is not a metaphor for the Leviathan state, I don’t know what is.
Now, as I said, it’s not clear that Shelley saw it this way, but there is some evidence that she did. In Chapter 4, Victor implies that it is the pursuit of “unlawful” sciences that has led men astray throughout history and infringed on peace.
“If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed to any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."
Few things interfere with peace, tranquility, or our domestic affairs more than the state, which is just one more reason I see Shelley’s novel as a cautionary tale for would-be Babel builders.
The moral lesson is clear: be careful about what you create using unscrupulous or unnatural means. Your creation may grow beyond your control and cause you great misery.