On Frankenstein, A Monster of a Book


Arts & Culture

Behind the scenes of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein.


In 1818, it probably would have been more shocking to have a novel about a Victoria Frankenstein doing perfectly normal, boring science than one about Victor making a hodgepodge of body parts come to life. In more than one way, Victor Frankenstein embodies the double contradiction at the core of the mad scientist outlined in the previous installment of this essay. First paradox: though deprived of reason (mad), this character is also the ultimate embodiment of reason (a scientist). Second paradox: even though mad scientists are always outcasts who rebel against the establishment, they tend to represent that very establishment—they are, for the most part, well-to-do white men.

True enough, every now and then, Frankenstein looks beyond Europe—for example, in search of a habitat for its monstrous offspring and sedatives that may quiet the nightmare of reason. After his first nervous breakdown, following the creation of the monster, Victor, saturated with Western knowledge, “found not only instruction but consolation in the works of the orientalists.” Together with his friend, Clerval, he learns Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew and reads the texts in the original:

Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating to a degree I never experienced in studying the authors of any other country. When you read their writings, life appears to consist in a warm sun and garden of roses,—in the smiles and frowns of a fair enemy, and the fire that consumes your own heart. How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome.

Toward the end of the novel, we learn that while Victor was reading the “orientalists,” the creature, abandoned by his creator, roamed the countryside. He found refuge in a hovel next to a cottage and, from his hideout, eavesdropped on the family of poor cottagers, the De Laceys. This French family is involved with “a treacherous Turk” and his daughter, Safie, “a lovely Arabian.” The decisive aspect of this nested narrative is that Safie is a device to justify the monster’s acquisition of language. He learns French along with her as he listens in on the De Laceys’ lessons: “Presently I found, by the frequent recurrence of one sound which [Safie] repeated after [the cottagers], that she was endeavoring to learn their language; and the idea instantly occurred to me, that I should make use of the same instructions to the same end.” The languageless monster is associated with this “Oriental” character—though not for long: “I may boast that I improved more rapidly than the Arabian,” the creature brags a few paragraphs later. The symmetry is remarkable: while Victor, having “conceived a violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy” and wanting to “fly from reflection,” moves away from European reason by learning Arabic, the monster (through his Arabian proxy) moves toward it by learning French.

Still, despite this flirtation with other cultures, both the creator and the creature, for all his Caliban-esque echoes, are European—Swiss and German, respectively, though in the 1831 version, Shelley turns Victor into a Neapolitan, which may help to make him a tad more “exotic” and meridional (compared to a Genevan). While Victor seeks solace by looking east, the monster turns south. Begging Victor to create a mate for him, the creature argues, “If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again; I will go to the vast wilds of South America … My companion will be of the same nature as myself … We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food.”

South America, the potential breeding ground for monsters, is presented like the Eden this Adam never knew. Shelley may have been thinking of Argentina’s vast pampas and titanic glaciers as a shelter for the oversize monster and his family—after all, according to some, Patagonia seems to derive either from Patagón (a huge monster in Primaleón, a chivalric novel from 1512) or from patón, referring to the giant feet the Tehuelche people were supposed to have. True or false, these etymologies nicely echo Victor’s mentions of the creature’s “huge step on the white plain. The reality, however, is that around the time the novel was published, rather than being a prelapsarian Arcadia, most of South America was involved in wars of independence and efforts to constitute sovereign states. That these struggles were fueled, in no small measure, by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and one of its creatures, the French Revolution (whose links to Shelley’s novel have often been pointed out), gives the project of exporting this monster of reason to Latin America an unintentionally ironic twist.

These glances east and south are some of Frankenstein’s timid attempts at escaping the general sense of normalcy the mad scientist is supposed to denounce. But for all the bizarreness of Victor’s scientific method and its results, he remains profoundly and unshakably conventional. Consider that most crucial of scenes, where Victor witnesses the creature coming to life:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured 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 …

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 … but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room …

Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.

After two years of toil and many more of research, after laboring with corpses and body parts, after having discovered the mystery of life itself, Victor witnesses the awesome miracle of his creature opening its eyes to the world and finds it … “ugly”? The frivolity of his reaction is stunning. Somehow, the shallowest aesthetic values suddenly outweigh the biological marvel in front of him. Victor’s offended sense of normalcy prevails over the scientific curiosity that has ruled his entire life. And there is no ethical or even religious component to his “horror and disgust”; he simply finds the monster unsightly and is “unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created.” Indeed, “the different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature.” The reality of the creature outdoes the madness of the creator’s designs. If there was ever something “abnormal” about Victor, the monster normalizes him. It is the monster (rather than its creator) who questions the established order. And this is the point where Frankenstein stands out as a unique, freakishly exceptional book.

Frankenstein not only is a book about a monster; it is also a monster of a book. Like the creature, it is made up of incongruent bits and pieces stitched up together. If “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of [Victor’s] materials,” something similar can be said of Mary Shelley’s process. The text is a wonderful monstrosity composed of several genres, texts, and voices patched up into one weird creature. The book begins as an epistolary narrative (with the letters that Captain Walton, headed for the North Pole, writes to his famously voiceless sister), then it becomes a journal with dated entries, and then a story, transcribed by Walton, organized in chapters, like a novel, edited by Victor himself. “Frankenstein discovered that I made notes concerning his history: he asked me to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places,” Walton reveals in the final chapter. (“Since you have preserved my narration … I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity,” Victor says, furthering the comparison between the text and a chopped-up body.) Frame narratives multiply: Walton’s story contains Frankenstein’s, which contains the creature’s—whose long tale is quoted uninterruptedly for several chapters—which contains yet other stories, such as the ordeals of the De Lacey family, the cottagers the monster overhears from his hovel. Polyphony is a form of monstrosity—one voice made of many.

Within each one of these stories and voices, several genres coexist: fictional autobiography, philosophical treatise, melodrama, horror, gothic, all of them sutured with “wonderful and sublime” lyric threads that sometimes unravel into strands of what feels like travel-guidebook prose. And to further compare the book to the monster, Shelley, of course, helped create the genre of science fiction, a radically new creature composed, again, of paradoxical parts.

Furthermore, the monster and the novel have the same birth. Here is how Victor first comes into “natural philosophy,” the “genius that will regulate [his] fate” and lead to the creation of the monster: “When I was thirteen years of age, we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon: the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa.”

And here is Mary Shelley in her 1831 introduction to the novel, telling the famous story about the book’s inception in Villa Diodati, when she was nineteen years old: “In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron … But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands.”

Proper names and contextual details aside, the resemblance of these passages, both in content and structure, is striking. In Frankenstein, randomly reading Agrippa during a bout of bad weather breeds in Victor “contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy” and makes him long for the time “when the masters of the science sought immortality and power.” This, in turn, will lead to the creation of the monster. In a similar fashion, the volume of ghost stories picked up haphazardly during “the summer that never was” inspires Lord Byron to challenge Percy and Mary Shelley and John Polidori to “each write a ghost story.” As is well-known, “his proposition was acceded to.” The result was Frankenstein (with Polidori’s “The Vampyre” as a bonus). Victor and Mary—two teenagers on a spoiled vacation, reading a book that falls into their hands by chance. This is the starting point for both the monster and the novel.

Frankenstein’s main themes are well-known: the hubris of the creator, the friendlessness of the creature, the inversion of hierarchies between them. (“You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” the monster tells Victor.) Still, there is a good reason why this mad scientist and his many clones have remained a productive figure for centuries. At any given historical moment, this character offers a glimpse into the anxieties and hopes conjured up by knowledge and technology. Whether optimistic or apocalyptic, traced to their source, most of these narratives lead to one fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? Victor Frankenstein’s creature: “And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant … I was not even of the same nature as man … When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned? … What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans.”

A radical form of exception, a monster is a creature made of the combination of disparate parts to become “something out of the common order of nature,” according to Samuel Johnson’s definition in his Dictionary. In a sense, then, humans are the first monsters: thinking beasts. None of the bizarre splices and hybrids in the history of literature, from centaurs to cyborgs, comes even close to our own monstrous constitution, where reason coexists with the darkest instincts. And since we are doomed to not only to live with this “thorough and primitive duality,” as Henry Jekyll puts it, but also to be aware of it at all times, these fictions of mad geniuses and their offspring may be some of the stories we tell ourselves to grapple with it.


Part 1 of this essay, on mad scientists throughout the canon of the genre, can be read here.

Hernan Diaz is the managing editor of RHM. His first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.