Frankenstein: Monster of the Enlightenment
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley created two of the most enduring characters in literary history with her 1818 work Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. You’re probably familiar with modern depictions of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster, whether through the classic Boris Karloff films, the cartoon incarnation from Hotel Transylvania, or Mel Brooks’ tap dancing duo in Young Frankenstein. What is it about the story of Victor Frankenstein and his grotesque creation that has stayed in the public consciousness for nearly two hundred years?
We’ll dive more deeply into Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and their continued grip on our collective psyche in this week’s cast. Before we do, though, we’d like to share some more background on the tale and its enduring legacy.
One of the most prominent and popular interpretations of the book right after it was written held that the doctor and his monster represented humanity’s attempts to seize power from God. Victor Frankenstein is “playing God” when he creates life in his monster. He is soundly punished for this transgression, as the monster destroys his family and friends one by one. By the end of the work, Dr. Frankenstein is left devastated and alone.
Dr. Frankenstein’s punishment for dabbling in divine domains seemed a kind of warning to those living in the era of the Enlightenment: trespass into matters beyond the human realm, and face God’s wrath.
The theme of divine retribution also echoes through the Romantic art of the period. One of our favorite professors at the University at Buffalo, Dr. Don McGuire, often assigns Frankenstein as required reading to his students. He pairs it with a painting by Francisco Goya entitled Saturn Devouring His Son, as the two works have striking parallels.
Drawn from Greek and Roman mythology, Goya’s painting depicts the Titan Saturn, or Cronus, eating his own children as they were born. According to the myth, it had been foretold to Saturn that one of his children was destined to overthrow him in the future. Fearing this loss of status and power, the Titan his children as a threat. He therefore devours them, one by one.
Like Shelly’s Frankenstein, Goya’s painting acts as a warning to society that if one tries to overthrow the natural order of the world, there will be dire consequences. It also raises questions on the extent to which that-which-has-been-created, whether monster or child, can pose an existential threat to its parents. The case of Saturn is a more obvious example, but Dr. Frankenstein can also been viewed as a direct threat to God’s presumed omnipotence in nineteenth-century Europe. Seen in this light, the painting and the story are also cautionary tales about the lengths to which the parent will go to ensure that such a transgression does not happen again.
Did this whet your appetite? Good! Then join Averill, Marissa and Sarah as they talk about Mary Shelley, her monstrous book, and what it has meant to readers across the centuries.
Show Notes & Further Reading
Bennett, Betty T., and Stuart Curran. Mary Shelley in Her Times. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Crook, Nora. “Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein.” Blackwells Companion to the Gothic. New York: Wiley, 2001.
Flesher, Caroline McCracken. The Doctor Dissected: A Cultural Autopsy of the Burke & Hare Murders. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2011.
George Forster, Executed at Newgate, 18th of January, 1803, Newgate Calendar.
Hoeveler, Diane. “Frankenstein, Feminism, and Literary Theory.”
Laston, Jennifer. Did A Real-Life Alchemist Inspire Frankenstein. TIME.
Mary Shelley, Biography.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.
Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Rosner, Lisa. The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
Sappol, Michael. A Traffic in Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Ninteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Seimsen, Cynthia. “Wollenstonecraft, Mary.” Blackwell Companion to Sociology. New York: Wiley, 2007.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus.
Feature Image: “Frankenstein At Work In His Laboratory,” from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, 1922 Cornhill edition | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons