Wed
Sep 25 2013 5:00pm

Original Sin: The Complex Irony of Frankenstein and Its Impact

If a child dressed as Dr. Frankenstein for Halloween or Purim, all the other children would label that costume “mad scientist.” The recognizable thing about the story of Frankenstein is its Frankenstein-ness, not the actual book itself. Like the creature of the novel, it’s as though Mary Shelley’s awesome book became a problem all on its own. Why has it been banned in the past? Probably because of a very specific misreading of the book. But the weird thing about this book is how even people who would never think of banning it are wrong about it, too!

In the introduction of my copy of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, Shelley has this to say about how you’re supposed to read her book:

“The opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction, nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.”

A couple years ago, when writing about this book for Tor.com’s Monster Mash, I pointed out that Mary Shelley was possibly a time traveler, because her foresight into how this book would be misinterpreted is staggering. Seriously, Mary Shelley’s ghost is probably sitting at every screening of every film version of Frankenstein ever, just shaking her head and muttering the word “fools” to herself over and over again. And that’s because the point of the book seems, in my opinion, to be totally misunderstood. Ostensibly, the novel gives us a science fiction premise: the creation of a man cobbled together from the parts of other dead men, to ponder whether flouting death is all its cracked up to be. The negative cultural response to said premise seems to generally head in one of two directions.

The first are religious folks who sought to ban the book because it depicted obscene or unnatural acts and acts against God. You could argue that the novel actually agrees with people who dislike “unnatural acts” (mentioning Prometheus in the subtitle doesn’t do the author any favors in regards to delivering a mixed message) but a more contemporary and progressive religious argument could see the story of the monster’s creation as a cautionary warning; don’t fuck with nature. In essence, those who sought to ban the book on religious grounds likely ended up seeking to ban something that actually agreed with their stance.

More secular science fiction-loving folks have generally missed the point of the story, as well, taking it as a warning that technology will turn on you if you take it too far. This perspective on Frankenstein informs a lot of science fiction storytelling, so much so that Isaac Asimov infamously created the laws of robotics as a way to avoid rehashing stories where robots turn on their masters. (Franken-bots!)

In fact, I don’t think the book has any one specific message. You can see it as a cautionary tale about the workings of God, a warning about technology, or, if anything, a story about people having family problems. The monster can be seen as Frankenstein’s child in a number of ways. Aren’t we all dealing with the ghosts of the past? Aren’t we all walking around with the genetic material of dead people all the time? Being a person is pretty screwed up if you think about it.

In that sense, Shelley isn’t analyzing or critiquing technological or metaphysical innovation, she’s simply depicting how basic problems in our own lives are generated by it. Frankenstein isn’t a “Frankenstein story” but a “people do weird stuff to each other” story.

So, the next time someone calls Frankenstein a “cautionary tale,” I would turn to that person and say, “Yes, it’s cautioning all of us against creating anything new or having families.” And then see how fast that person tries to ban you!


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

10 comments
Drew McCaffrey
1. PallonianFire
You make some good points here. Modern representations of this story are so far off from the actual events and messages that it's really quite sad. However, I always saw this book as a sort of commentary on a character (Frankenstein) who was a narcissist at heart and attempted to create a sort of warped mirror (the monster) for self-adulation. And of course having it all go to shit.
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
I've always felt that it was a misinterpretation to agree with Dr. Frankenstein's view that "playing God" by creating life was evil. After all, the book made it clear that the creature was an intelligent, soulful being who only wanted to be friendly and good-natured, but who was rejected and ostracized by everyone simply because of his appearance, and thus turned bitter and vengeful in response to their cruelty to him. So it can be read as a statement against bigotry, and particularly a statement against child abuse and neglect -- if you create a life and show it no kindness, only cruelty and rejection, it will grow up twisted and dysfunctional. Frankenstein believes he did evil by trying to create life, but in fact he did evil by refusing to take responsibility for his creation afterward. He's one of literature's worst deadbeat dads, making it troubling that he's the character we're traditionally told we should identify with.

I think this same message is implicit in the Universal movies. Karloff's creature is not as intellectually refined as Shelley's, but he isn't intrinsically evil; it's being tortured and abused by Fritz that drives him into his first rage, and his killing of the girl is an accident when he's trying to make friends. And in Bride of Frankenstein, he's able to have a perfectly civil coexistence with the blind man, and it's only the xenophobia and hate of the villagers that ruins it for everyone. The annoying thing is that Bride opens with the intro where Mary Shelley herself claims that the message of the book is about the sins of playing God and the intrinsic evil of the resultant creation -- but I feel that was added as a sop to the censors and to moviegoers who might otherwise see the film as blasphemous. (Opening the film with a frame that blatantly presented its events as merely a story being told may have been another way to mollify the pious -- much like the way Jack Benny's The Horn Blows at Midnight, a comedy about angels and the end of the world, is blatantly framed as just a dream.)
Jeff LaSala
3. JLaSala
Well said, Ryan. To me, the greatest moral lesson in Frankenstein (and I doubt Shelley would regard it as such, anyway) is simply that one must take responsibility for one's actions. That's what the good doctor doesn't do. The monster isn't intrinsically evil by any stretch: all of his wrath, which drives him to very specific, targeted evil acts, stems from his abandonment. What a different story it would be if Victor hadn't freaked out upon first seeing his creation move. That's really it. That's what it comes down to—and he fails to come to his senses and finish what he started. If he'd acknowledge the creature, talk to it, learn from it, etc., it certainly wouldn't have become the abomination it's considered, or the abject example of don't-tamper-with-science or even the warning of don't-try-and-play-God. The two might have gotten along swimmingly and science would have advanced.

But then that would have been a forgettable story. Shelley did the right thing.
alastair chadwin
4. a-j
Excellent piece.

Stephen King once commented that pedants were wrong when they corrected people for calling the monster 'Frankenstein' as it is the doctor who is the monster here.

I can recommend a nice little novel by Chris Priestley called Mister Creecher in which a London guttersnipe meets up with a huge foreign man called 'Creecher' (say it out loud) who is persuing a certain Dr Frankenstein. It's particularly good on hatred and how it poisons everything around it.

A purely personal peeve. I always get mildly tetchy when I hear Frankenstein being referred to as science fiction. It isn't. It is, self-consciously, a Gothic and Romantic story. SF began with Jules Verne (discuss). Anyway, just wanted to get that off my chest:)
Christopher Bennett
5. ChristopherLBennett
@3: "What a different story it would be if Victor hadn't freaked out upon first seeing his creation move."

And that story has been told, superbly -- it's called Young Frankenstein. Friedrich Frankenstein is a more responsible creator/father than Victor (or Henry in the Universal movies) ever was. He's the one Frankenstein who gets it right, who takes responsibility for his creation and gives it love rather than abuse and hatred. Maybe that's why, even though YF is nominally a parody, many fans (myself included) consider it not only a legitimate sequel, but the best film in the series.

@4: Yes, it's Gothic, but it's science fiction as well, because it's a story that's driven by a conjectural scientific advance and its consequences, a story that wouldn't exist without that conjectural element. SF does not exclude other genres and is not excluded by them. Genres can and often do overlap.

And I say SF began with Gulliver's Travels. That's a novel about the discovery of alien lands and races whose conjectural, exotic cultures serve as allegories for social themes, and it features extensive, imaginative worldbuilding on a par with anything in modern SF. At the time it was written, sailing to new lands and chronicling the exotic life forms and cultures found there was a major part of scientific discovery, and a lot of the world was still unknown to Europeans, so there was room for conjecture about what could be found in faraway lands, just as there was room for conjecture about life on Venus and Mars before the space probes of the 1960s-70s. (The book was meant to be published pseudonymously as a true story, an elaborate hoax, but Swift's authorship was revealed shortly before publication. Meaning that spoilers are as old as SF itself!)
RobL
6. RobL
@4 Are you saying Frankenstein is a Gothic and Romantic story and therefore can't be science fiction because it can't be both, or do you mean that it can't be SF for other reasons?

In any case, Frankenstein meets my definition of SF. The science was plausible in its day, at least as plausible as many things we currently call SF are in our day, and it is integral to the story. It's true that Shelley didn't get into the specifics of how the science worked, because that wasn't her point. For her, the science seems to have been more in the spirit of a thought experiment or a means to tell her human story. But excluding Frankenstein on those grounds would result in a narrow definition of SF that would exclude many authors we typically like to include (hello Ray Bradbury).
RobL
7. TheObject
@4 Completely agree.

While Frankenstein does have a large influence on Science Fiction and caused the 'cautionary tale of science gone wrong' story type. It is no itself a sci-fi book.

I'm not even sure were people get the whole 'dead bodies being sewn together' (well okay, it was in the film) from the book, as how The Monster is created is never stated and Shelley makes a point of not going in to detail. We are told that Dr. Frankenstein creates the monster by studying science and then applying principals of alchemy to make it work. Essentially its just the escuse why this happened and not in any way important to the point of the tale. Alchemy is not science and is the antithesis of science.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@7: But science fiction is not about the mechanisms of the science, it's about the consequences of innovation. As RobL says, there's plenty of "soft" science fiction where the details of the technology are irrelevant.

And at the time the book was written, the theories that Victor Frankenstein based his work on were considered to be science, albeit fringe science. Just because later science has discredited those ideas, that doesn't mean it doesn't count as SF. By that standard, we'd have to disqualify everything written about Venus or Mars prior to the 1960s.

Besides, the lack of scientific detail was not an omission by the author, but a choice made by the novel's main character. The account of the creation is narrated by Frankenstein himself, who has come to see his work as evil and thus refuses to give any specifics about his methods.
alastair chadwin
9. a-j
I think my unhappiness is the application of a label with hindsight. SF did not exist as a genre when Frankenstein was written and, more importantly, it did not quickly give rise to a new genre that specifically referenced the novel in the way that - say- Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone gave rise to the detective story (discuss). Rather, I think that SF, once up and running in the 20th century, looked to older works and drew themes from Frankenstein, Gulliver's Travels and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
RobL
10. greggchamberlain
Myself, during my later re-readings of the novel, see an underlying theme of being responsible for the results of our actions and the consequences when we refuse to accept responsibility... in this case, Frankenstein, at the beginning, failed to take responsibility for the creature he had made, fleeing from it from the start and thus abandoning it to its own devices, instead of taking on the task and duty of caring for and educating the creature. Thus, the result was the creature learning to react, for the most part, by instinct during its encounters with others, and death and tragedy followed, all the while the creature learned to hate both its creator and society at large and, as a secondary consequence, to loath itself for being alone and different.

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