What Frankenstein’s Monster Really Looks Like

Oct 31, 2018 by

The New York Times

Mary Shelley’s great novel is about the failure to recognize the humanity of those who don’t resemble us.

By William Egginton

Dr. Egginton is a professor of the humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

Credit Daniel Zender

This Halloween I’m hoping to see at least a few trick-or-treaters dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. After all, this year is the 200th since the publication of Mary Shelley’s great novel, which perhaps more than any other book has become the model of modern literary horror.

But while I might catch a glimpse of a few cylindrical heads with neck bolts of the sort that were standard movie and TV fare from Boris Karloff to Herman Munster, it’s unlikely I’ll see a particularly accurate rendering of Victor Frankenstein’s creation. Nor am I certain I would recognize it if it knocked on my door.

Shelley’s description of the being — whom Frankenstein often calls a fiend or daemon — is decidedly sparse. He is enormous; he has long, black hair; he is frightful to behold; and he stares at his creator with a “dull yellow eye.”

Her reticence to describe physically the horror at the heart of her tale was no oversight, though. While her story has most often been interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of modern man’s hubris as he pushes the limits of scientific knowledge — and it certainly is that — it is also, more powerfully, a story about the failure to recognize the humanity of those who don’t look like us, and how that failure of sympathy itself engenders monsters.

My reference above to “modern man” was deliberate. Shelly was a daughter of the leading feminist of her time, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the progressive political philosopher William Godwin. Herself an intellectual and freethinker, Shelley almost certainly had a model of European male self-confidence in mind when she created Victor Frankenstein. When we first encounter Victor, an explorer who finds him marooned on a slab of arctic ice reports that he was not “a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European.”

Shelley is clearly impatient at best with the assumption of total freedom that allows a European man of wealth like Victor to dedicate whatever time and resources he wishes to the pursuit of his education, while the women of his own family are left wishing that they could broaden their horizons in such a way. In the end, a repentant Victor will blame the ruin of Greece and Rome, as well as the destruction of the empires of Mexico and Peru, on the single-minded obsession of unencumbered men such as himself.

Notably, it is the monster’s failure to attain the standard of the European man of a certain class that drives him to become a monster and, like Milton’s Satan, make evil be his good. If the realization of his shortcomings leads to this revolt, that is because the monster embodies the same desire for the sympathy and recognition of others that makes humans something more than complex machines that can be ignited by the spark of life.

Victor promises to make a female companion for his monster. But when he realizes that she, too, might “refuse to comply with a contract made before her creation,” he reasserts his dominance and destroys her before the project is completed.

Shelley’s monster reappears in popular culture in different forms. You see him in Hal, the murderous computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who decides his carbon-based companions are expendable. You see him in the 2017 sci-fi horror film “Life,” in which a few cells of extraterrestrial life grow into a highly intelligent being that refuses to remain a science experiment.

More important, Shelley’s monster lives on whenever those who are regarded as different refuse to comply with social contracts they had no part in creating. The monster lived when African-Americans refused to comply with their subjected status and rose in revolt; the monster lived when women demanded and won the right to vote; and the monster lives today when women decline to be treated like objects for men’s pleasure.

The monster lives and will continue to live as long as there is a yearning for a full recognition as equally human where such recognition has been denied.

William Egginton is a professor of the humanities at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today’s College Campuses.”

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