Most of us are familiar with the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. From the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, it’s remake in 1831, and the series of films that butchered it long afterward, the story has always centered on the moral struggles of a creation brought to life by a mad scientist. But, what you may not have known, especially if you’ve never read the original novel (which there is an excellent copy of it here if you’d like to read it, first), is that there may be another truth behind the monster … another possibility as to what it really was.
There was no monster.
The scientist, Victor Frankenstein, never brought his creature to life (or, that is how the theory goes that I’m about to present). He failed. It’s not possible to reanimate a corpse, it’s science fiction … and Mary Shelley wasn’t in the business of inventing fake science … but she was a little dark in her life and had a pretty darn good grasp of the darkness within men. What follows is a proposed theory of what the monster really was, playing out the events and providing supporting evidence to back this up. And, the truth about the monster has a whole new set of consequences as it applies to humanity …
First, you should know that the story was not written as some deep, anti-industrial era warning. It was a horror story, Ray Bradbury / Twilight Zone style, told among friends in a friendly competition (there are some cool facts about that here). Frankenstein is truly one of the original, and most terrifying horror stories because it involves a monster that is quite alive and well, today. It’s been told over and over again … through movies about treading into areas of science and technology that will come back to haunt us and therefore has had a profound impact on the whole of society … and is an important part of our culture.
So, let’s begin (this may be a little long because of all the text from the book …):
On a boat, in the icy north, the Captain, Walton, has a somewhat unlikely run-in with a semi-mad, highly determined, self-indulgent, and self-proclaimed hero named Victor Frankenstein.
“But, to a Genevan magistrate, whose mind was occupied by far other ideas than those of devotion and heroism, this elevation of mind had much the appearance of madness.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 23).
Victor begins to tell his story to Walton, the only person he can find to listen to him and hopefully take him seriously (which is convenient for Victor as Walton’s boat is stuck in the ice). As he relates his story of alchemy, electricity, and science, he quickly jumps aboard the cuckoo wagon and pronounces his amazing, super-power hero knowledge that makes him the smartest scientist in all of humanity.
“I paused, examining and analyzing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 4).
But, remember, this stunning revelation wasn’t crazy … trust me … cause I said so!
“Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens than that which I now affirm is true.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 4).
This is when Victor Frankenstein begins to go nuts. Tempted by the power of godhood, like any person tempted by power (“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – John Dalberg), Victor ignores promise of marriage and his own health to cross the threshold of sanity and make a deal with the devil (in this case, science is personified as that demonic power). Now, remember, Victor has been spurred on by his father this whole time about keeping his nose to the grindstone and having a dedication to work. Even though he describes a happy childhood, it’s clear that his father passed on a certain level of obsession.
“I knew well therefore what would be my father’s feelings, but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed. I then thought that my father would be unjust if he ascribed my neglect to vice or faultiness on my part, but I am now convinced that he was justified in conceiving that I should not be altogether free from blame. A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 4).
That … is a LOT of daddy issues. Victor then exposes himself to dead bodies and parts, probably a lot of formaldehyde, toxic chemicals, and other substances that definitely don’t help his case for sanity.
“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? … I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel — houses … I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter — house furnished many of my materials …” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 4).
Who does that? What “old” habits? Clearly … this guy was delving into some pretty dark stuff long before he thought he could create life. He was literally working in a home-made lab, in secret, that was probably once the lab where he worked with his father, as a slaughterhouse. He had also been getting away with terrible crimes and was quickly developing emotional problems like guilt. So, here is a scientist who believes he’s the smartest guy in the world, thinks he will become God, digging around in graveyards, suffering from extreme guilt, cutting up bodies, experimenting with chemistry and electricity, and wallowing around in blood and death. That’s not exactly the type of thing that keeps peoples’ minds operating on the ‘straight and narrow.’ But, then, something terrible happens.
“I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 5).
Now, try imagining this: The culmination of his work, postponing his love, trying to meet his father’s expectations, and so on … for nothing. The corpse shakes a little, and that’s it. As he looks at it, trying to figure out what just happened, he realizes the truth. He’s a failure. Looking around the room, he hallucinates. He sees the dead faces of other bodies laughing at him, skeletons dancing in laughter, alchemists pointing and shaking their head in disgust, his dead mother calling out to him “Why Victor? Why couldn’t you save me?”, and then, his father. He sees at the window, his father turn away in disappointment. Victor is broken. His world is shattered. Looking down at the bed – his mind quickly formulates a solution.
YOU DID THIS! He says, pointing at the monster (aka lifeless carcass). THIS IS YOUR FAULT! Clearly, the monster was a grotesque failure. It was an abomination and it was NOT HIS FAULT! Yeah … right ….
Here’s the thing. Victor saw his creation before he pulled the switch. He knew what it looked like. So, when he describes how terrible it looks and that makes it the abomination, one thing’s for certain: he’s looking at it as if it were the first time. Thus, the identifying moment of the split in his personality.
“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 5).
Then, Victor clenches this catastrophic break in his psyche when he says:
“The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 5).
Yep, you guessed it – denial. That’s part of the mental break in someone who is so exceedingly traumatized. In a fit of denial, Victor runs upstairs and crawls into bed and covers himself from head to toe, like a child hiding from the monster in the closet. Laying in bed, dreaming of losing everything, he awakes and convulses. There’s the key parallel between Victor and the dead body he thought he had brought to life: convulsion (and this will come up again many, many times, as an important, key word, to remind us of that parallel). As he awakens, looking back at him, from the lifted covers, is the creature brought to life (forgetting the years of rehabilitation it would have to go through due to rigamortis and the other natural processes the body would have to go through adapting its organs to all function). This is a delusion – and Victor doesn’t know the difference because he’s now, technically, broken. While the monster had followed him upstairs, Victor ran out into the courtyard, but the monster never continued to follow in a very telling and auspicious hint from Shelley that the monster wasn’t real.
“I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 5).
And, why was he so startled by this? After all, Victor himself claimed his immunity to horrors beyond the comprehension of men.
“In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 4).
Then Victor runs into his friend, Henry Clerval. Victor takes him upstairs to see the monster, but it was empty. The monster had, for some reason, decided to stop pursuing Frankenstein and disappeared into the city streets, supposedly through the front door (as Victor was out in the back courtyard), and into the night with no one noticing an 8 foot tall, corpse-like guy.
“My hand was already on the lock of the door before I recollected myself. I then paused, and a cold shivering came over me. I threw the door forcibly open, as children are accustomed to do when they expect a specter to stand in waiting for them on the other side; but nothing appeared. I stepped fearfully in: the apartment was empty, and my bedroom was also freed from its hideous guest. I could hardly believe that so great a good fortune could have befallen me, but when I became assured that my enemy had indeed fled, I clapped my hands for joy and ran down to Clerval.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 5).
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (which has a lot of correlation with Frankenstein), Victor hallucinates, seeing monsters, and once again, convulses. From this point forward, there are more than enough clues in the story to tell the rest of it:
- When Frankenstein is around, the monster is not. When the monster is around, Frankenstein is not (except when they’re on the ice and all alone … like when Superman saw his dead father … yeah … weird).
- The monster magically learns to read, speak English, and develops a deep, intellectual mind in only two years.
- The monster is the emotional and outpouring side of Victor’s continuously logical side.
- The monster “conveniently” runs into Victor’s cousin, William, and after ‘conveniently’ overhearing him talk about his father and strangling him, he knows enough to take Caroline Frankenstein’s picture and place it into Justine Moritz’s pocket so she will be blamed for the murder. (Do you REALLY need more than THIS?)
- Victor has a chance to give the monster happiness and be rid of him … but for some self-indulgent explanation about demon baby children (that he could have engineered out when making her), he doesn’t?
- Victor sits down with Frankenstein in an icy cave … you know … one of those ones where “no man dares to tread.”
And, then we get the best example of all. Conveniently, after a two year getaway (while apparently Frankenstein got a lot of other work done and the monster was unheard from), Frankenstein sets himself up to be alone in a laboratory, once again. While working on Frankenstein’s bride, knowingly ‘supposedly’ being watched by his creation, Frankenstein destroys the female corpse (and the hope for salvation and redemption for his creation … as if to intentionally create a monster / prove his work / or other stupidly insane idea).
“I trembled and my heart failed within me, when, on looking up, I saw by the light of the moon the daemon at the casement. A ghastly grin wrinkled his lips as he gazed on me, where I sat fulfilling the task which he had allotted to me. Yes, he had followed me in my travels; he had loitered in forests, hid himself in caves, or taken refuge in wide and desert heaths; and he now came to mark my progress and claim the fulfillment of my promise.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 20).
Imagine this: Victor, while creating another dead corpse, looks up to the window at night. Now, have you ever looked at a window at night, whether or not there was a moon outside, with a lot of bright lights inside? What do you see?
That’s what Victor saw (well … not Gene Wilder … but himself). He saw his own reflection and the monster that was within him. This is especially important as it’s frequently used in the novel, where a window/casement frames only the head of the monster looking back at Victor … like a mirror. Then, if you will, imagine a Lord of The Rings / Hobbit / Smeagle-Golem moment where he’s speaking to himself. That night, Victor Frankenstein and the monster talked. Yep … the monster was in a fit of furious rage, but sat down with Victor for a semi-pleasant, midnight chat. And, the monster resolves to let him be, swearing to get him on his wedding night (to which the monster should have known nothing about). Like Hamlet, Victor developed feelings of persecution like he was under attack. Science was to Victor what Guilt and Fear were to Hamlet. Hamlet’s monster came in the form of a snake and Victor’s in the form of his failed creation.
Was Victor nuts?
“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” (Victor Frankenstein, Chapter 4).
He was trying to create a race of new, super beings. The leader of the Nazi party who would come into power shortly after this novel was written had a very similar mindset as Frankenstein (that is, in creating a perfect, new race that worshipped him), and the consequences were no less terrible. Then, on his wedding night, it’s not Victor who dies, but conveniently, Elizabeth. Victor sees his creation in the window and runs after it shooting, but it too, conveniently disappears and evades him.
- And, of course, Elizabeth dies alone – no one sees it.
- Even after Victor is tossed in the slammer and considered a mad man – he’s eventually let out (and during that time … no monster).
- Victor wants to die without Elizabeth, but his newfound hatred for the monster keeps him alive.
- Then Victor’s father dies, in his arms, of a supposedly broken heart, and Victor vows revenge against a monster he can’t beat (and has only continued to further aggravate, making the situation worse, every time he retaliates). He swears at first that he will not stop until he gets the monster, and then later makes Walton swear to succeed him if he fails as the monster is impossible to stop. (Victor, like the monster, does a LOT of back and forth on the ‘I should live …’ no … ‘I should die …’ … Nobody likes you! You has no friends, Smeagle ….)
- While there are occasional references to villagers seeing the monster, or catching a glimpse, and so on, at different points, the monster has tools, weapons, etc.?
- When Walton takes over the narration, sending his letters (somehow having the details of Frankenstein’s family whereabouts), he speaks so eloquently of Frankenstein, claiming his unmatched brilliance in all things, it has that eerie familiarity to the insane, delusions of grandeur that Victor had about himself. Which raises the question about whether or not Victor wrote those letters … or did a personality swap, aced Walton, and took his spot Princess Bride style … (just … less eloquently).
- It’s not until the crew threatens to mutiny that things take a mysterious turn. Suddenly, for no good reason, Frankenstein becomes ill. Apparently, there’s no saving him.
- Finally, Frankenstein dies in his sleep and his creation comes to weep over him. Walton conveniently walks in and sees them, mustering the courage to insult the monster. But, oddly, the monster suddenly becomes remorse over his creator, exclaiming what a grandiose person he is. Then, the monster martyrs himself verbally and heads off into the darkness to die, all alone, without his creator to love him, in a very sappy, “I’m gonna’ get redemption and my soul will rest in peace,” speech.
WHAT? A little confusing and nonsensical if they’re different people. It would be better argued that Walton was replaced by Frankenstein, and then, the mutinous crew, and finally, Frankenstein glorified his own departure, Beowulf style.
Okay – so here’s the conclusion of the story:
Frankenstein had developed a full, split personality as a response to a traumatic event and to avoid accountability. Now, whether or not he was wearing a dead-body suit to look like the monster, had been secretly cutting up himself and could pull back his own skin, or even if he imagined the whole thing … Frankenstein was the bad guy in all aspects (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Yes, the monster side of him was a victim of a self-indulgent, over obsessive scientist with childhood issues, but it was still him. He murdered his own cousin, his friends … and HIS OWN WIFE ON THEIR WEDDING NIGHT!
If Walton really did walk in to Victor’s cabin, I would argue that Walton did not see Victor Frankenstein on the floor, but the bundle of sheets that Frankenstein kept the body parts in, or clothes, or whatever it was that he was wearing to become the ‘monster’. And, in the last, few moments, Walton realized that the monster and Frankenstein were one in the same (kind of like an instant rewind and shockingly disparaging revelation).
“I abhorred myself. But when I discovered that he, the author at once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for happiness, that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me he sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which I was forever barred, then impotent envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable thirst for vengeance. I recollected my threat and resolved that it should be accomplished. I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture, but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested yet could not disobey. Yet when she died! Nay, then I was not miserable. I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish, to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen. The completion of my demoniacal design became an insatiable passion.” (Victor Frankenstein as the monster, Epilogue)
Frankenstein’s saying that he hated himself and that the passions he was barred from were those of his visions of godhood. He wanted vengeance … on the demons of science, and those around him who had kept that emotional bond that his father warned him would deter him from his work that led to the failure in creating life. When he says he was the slave, it contradicts when he told Victor about creating his bride (that he should be the slave to the monster). The impulsiveness he speaks of is reminiscent of the beginning of the story when he claims he could not stop himself due to his curiosity. And, just as he was in his narration, he was not upset at Elizabeth’s death, but rather, that had become a part of his vengeance plot. Finally, when he says that the ‘completion of my demonical design became an insatiable passion,’ it’s evident that Frankenstein never gave up on creating a monster, and was transforming himself as part of that work. Then Frankenstein’s creation goes on to say that that “abhorrence and opprobrium” (scorn) shall haunt his memory after death, although he later says that his death shall be a peaceful sleep? These are the conflicting two sides of Frankenstein that help prove he is actually one being. And, as he dies, the creature is all that’s left. But, there is recompense for his actions from the beginning …
After all … even God hated His creation enough to destroy it in a flood when He saw how ugly it had become …
Analysis & Conclusion
Frankenstein and Hamlet are not too dissimilar. In the beginning, it’s a supernatural element that encourages them both. While Hamlet’s break with reality comes from his fears about a prophecy (it’s Harry Potter! No … literally … it is, even the double double toil and trouble song), Victor’s fears come from a judgement that he only assumes is coming. Both men are then further encouraged during the course of their dealings and continue down the spiral until … darkness.
What Mary Shelley used here, the monster within, was based on the idea that mankind should not be tampering with knowledge that is forbidden. She clearly uses the ideas that had been troubling the world with the imbalance between the enlightenment and romanticism eras. She also brings out the mysterious shift in the world from alchemy and magic to science, where science is no longer an exploration of the world around us, but a religion. Theory becomes fact. Just look at the Big Bang Theory, or evolution. Neither of these are steeped in fact, only assumptions, and yet they take center stage in the world as scientific facts.
The problem is that science is a religion without a God. There is no governing authority. They don’t even abide by true chaos theory principals (the butterfly effect), ignoring the potential consequences of their behaviors, no matter how small. God, and the repercussions of our actions both in this life and the next, play as vital a role in human evolution as pain. Pain keeps us safe. It keeps us from touching the fire and holding our hands there until we melt. The potential threat of an afterlife of torment created by our own doing (not hell … but an internally generated misery born from our own state of being, as Shelley even referred to in her novel when the monster described its torment in the Epilogue), keeps people from doing whatever they want. Secular principals include not committing murder, not stealing, and generally, not hurting other people.
Science has no such rules. It abides by Earthly rules of potential jail … to an extent. Often, it manipulates those temporal rules to get away with what it can. (Which, by the way, is odd when you think about it, as science seems to be the dominant religion on the planet … in my opinion … and yet, it is secular rules by which societies are required to live!!). What Shelley was using to create her terror was not the possibility of what we might create (aka nuclear power), but who we’ll become (aka how we ‘use’ the nuclear energy … like a bomb).
Was she right?
- When scientists at CERN built the large Hadron Collider, knowing full well that there was the slightest possibility of opening a black hole on Earth – they weren’t trying to prove a theory, they were putting the entire planet in danger for their own, self-indulgent, obsessive curiosity to breach the boundaries of right and wrong.
- When scientists prepare to drop the entire band of radiation out of the Van Allen belts on Earth to satisfy their curiosity because it’s “interesting,” it is not science, it’s self-indulgent insanity.
- When medicine says it’s okay to murder unborn infants because they’ve theorized that babies don’t have souls yet (and theory is close enough to fact … although science theorizing about souls is … well … odd?), it’s not medicine … it’s risking human lives for their own, financial benefit and playing God.
- When pharmaceuticals deal drugs that have deadly and destructive side effects and ‘may’ work, it’s not science, it’s ‘mad’ science.
- When North Korea tests its hydrogen weapons and builds a submarine army to launch them, putting the world up in arms because Korea gained the knowledge of good and evil, eating from the tree at the center of the garden … the world steps up, prepared to kick them out of Eden.
What makes Shelley’s novel so terrifying that it is repeated throughout history in movies, books, television, spin-offs, newspapers, in scientific forums, and other manners, is that it brings to light the truth. You have but to look in the mirror to understand:
There are monsters.
They live inside …. all of us …
And, they’re waiting to be set free …
All they need is a means to escape … a way to justify their demonic presence …
No God to watch over them.
There are other examples. More explanations and defenses that can be given to validate what I’m proposing. But, now you know at least one other perspective on what this story is truly about. At least … in my humble opinion.
Thanks for reading! Pleasant dreams…….
“From my heart and from my hands, why don’t people understand, my intentions?” – Oingo Boingo