Image description: a still from the film Frankenstein (1931). In a cluttered and dark room, scientist Henry Frankenstein* pulls a lever near the ground and looks seriously at the ceiling. Next to him is his assistant, Fritz, who looks at the same spot on the ceiling. Directly below where the pair are looking is a large figure, wrapped in gauze, lying on a medical table.
By Izabela Barakovska
“I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.”
Sheets cover a body – all that’s visible is electricity-struck hair, a bolted neck, inhuman growls, grumbling and kicking as the monster struggles to rise. It’s either you on a Monday morning waking up early enough to find parking at uni, or the image that comes to mind when you hear ‘Frankenstein’.
Mary Shelley – the godmother of science fiction – daughter of a proto-feminist and philosopher, wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in 1818 (later revised in 1831). The original, ungodly creation story was born from a challenge amongst brilliant writers vacationing near Geneva – who could produce the best ghost story? Mary’s contribution was fed by the deathly shadow that hung over her life – her mother’s death during childbirth; the deaths of her first two children; and the suicide of her half-sister.
In Shelley’s masterwork, a well-off, bright young man is obsessed with discovering the very essence of humanity and recreating it. After months of experimentation on cadavers, Dr. Victor Frankenstein succeeds, but his creation is far from human . His rejection of this monster, in turn, comes to destroy his life.
This gothic creation story has become a pop-culture staple, from Thomas Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein, to the lovable Hotel Transylvania (2012) and the 2017 biographical film Mary Shelley. But beyond the screen, the divine tragedy still holds status as a classic with important lessons to tell in the modern day. Despite the disastrous outcome of his efforts, an audience of goal-driven, relentless perfectionists can see ourselves mirrored in Victor’s anxieties and well-intentioned actions. Our mad scientist believes he’s discovered the source of life itself and is determined to use his skills to create man – or, rather, the monster mistakenly known as ‘Frankenstein’.
“It was the secrets of the heaven and Earth that I desired to learn”.
Victor is humanised by his virtue and potential, but good intentions aside, his obsession with mortality tugs at modern concerns. Pushing boundaries and playing God, Victor reflects the double-edged sword of technological and scientific advancement our society often grapples with. So when did a ghost story based on foggy nightmares become so vital to a reality dealing with genetic and physical modification, overarching ambition, and the many flaws of human character?
As the plot progresses, Victor’s mental and physical health declines as a consequence of his isolation and hysteria in his echo chamber of madness. His Creation suffers similarly in a state of self-pity and hatred due to the banishment, alienation, and rejection inflicted by Dr. Frankenstein. The long-term debate of nature versus nurture in human development is explored through the monster’s interactions with humanity. The creature reads Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost – the kinds of texts you would see in an intro lit classics class – to teach human emotion, history and values. But his experiences are far from romantic when teachings of goodness and trust are contradicted by xenophobia, hostility and injustice.
“I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read… Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?”
Our experiences shape us, and in its own way, Frankenstein is an atypical ‘coming of age’ story too. The monster is much like a child let loose to struggle with humanity’s cruelty, neglect and misunderstanding. This impressionable being is corrupted by the gap between ideology preached and the reality of the interactions he has with others. Do these moral teachings sound familiar? Even in a multicultural society like Australia, prejudice and racism very much have the same effect. The monster’s loneliness and his abusive behaviour stem from the way he is judged and denied friendship due to his horrifyingly mismatched appearance and abhorrent conception.
But this is not to justify the destruction the monster inflicts. Instead, it is a reminder of the consequences of actions and importance of human connection. Amongst all the wonders of human evolution, we seem to be losing real connections in an increasingly connected society. Globalisation is both a blessing and a curse in its facilitation of diverse pathways, materials, ideas, and people. It has become easier to find a like-minded community, but also easier to create unrealistic and unrelenting standards, perpetuate social rejection, and feel haunted by words marked on glowing glass within your own home.
The unnamed nature of the character alone allows an audience to either relate with him, or to sympathise with Victor’s fear of him. What does this novel tell us about the dark side of humanity? Victor comes from affluence and status, and aside from the perils caused directly from his own actions, he faces no retribution from society itself. He never takes any responsibility. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an ode to a spark of electricity and mankind on a mission. Like all tragedies, the text aims to evoke pity and fear from an audience, and sympathy for the protagonist – Victor, our tragic hero – lest we not recognise in him our own human weaknesses. I believe it succeeds in matters of dread, disaster and foreboding ambience – but there’s lot to be learnt.
Frankenstein’s monster is not too different to the angsty, misunderstood teen phase you had; or the angsty, misunderstood young adult phase you’re having. Today, this intensely emotional cautionary tale of broken boundaries, wild ambition and the capabilities of both man and science has us questioning who the real monsters are. As this story ages, the further it digresses from fiction. In the present era of climate change, pandemics, gross inequality and mass media – you have to wonder, in few decades’ time, what will we think of the horror fiction of today?
Izabela is consistently tall, tired, talkative and totally ethnic – Opa!
*In the 1931 film, the protagonist’s name is Henry, not Victor, as in Shelley’s original novel.