200 Years of Frankenstein

200 Years of Frankenstein February 15, 2018

It probably doesn’t come as a shock to most that, the Satanic aesthetic being what it is, a lot of people in the Satanic community are fond of the horror genre. I think there’s a bit of a misconception among those outside the community at how non-trivial those fascinations really are though. Many seem to think that the whole ‘dark and macabre’ thing is just a childish attempt to get a rise out of people. In a way it’s not unlike the misconception that Satanists merely use the imagery of Satan to shock and annoy. There are legitimate philosophical and historical underpinnings that cause these stories to resonate, and one of the great examples of that is Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.’

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. Public domain via Wikimedia

Some Brief Historical Context

Armchair philosophers, the type who if you’re not a total shut-in you’ve invariably heard say something like ‘actually Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster’, are often met with the clever rejoinder of ‘wasn’t he though?’. Then everyone nods thoughtfully and someone eventually buys another round of drinks. It is the sort of thing worth thinking about though, sometimes in ways that are intimately related to the Satanic milieu. If Victor is the monster, what implications does that have in his role as creator to his creature? Is that a commentary on theology? Maybe. Mary was after all married to Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose contemporaneous work also fits neatly into the tradition of Romantic Satanism). But for the purposes of getting a sense of how the couple felt about God let’s just point out that before their courtship he was writing things like “The Necessity of Atheism” in which he flatly stated:

“… the mind cannot believe the existence of a creative God: it is also evident that, as belief is a passion of the mind, no degree of criminality is attachable to disbelief; and that they only are reprehensible who neglect to remove the false medium through which their mind views any subject of discussion. Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.

God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist..”- Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1813

Atheists today have problems telling their own grandmas that’s what they think, and Percy was publishing essays like that before the U.S. and Britain had even stopped shooting at each other over their breakup. So let’s just assume, for the moment, that Mary found heresy to be one of his admirable qualities. It’s then safe to say that Victor, in his role as creator, should rightly be viewed as a villain. But then does that make his creation a tragic hero? That brings us to a more interesting question of whether Victor or his creation is the Prometheus of the story referenced in the often ignored subtitle.

Frankenstein, and the Romantic Satan are Both Promethean Characters

Let’s take a minute to consider the correlations between the ancient Greek Prometheus, our modern Satan, and Frankenstein. In the Greek myth Prometheus is punished by the other gods for giving fire to humankind. Marginally less metaphorically, Satan is punished for rebellion and goes on to exact revenge on god by convincing humankind to eat of the tree of knowledge. In Frankenstein, the whole script flips. The creation is punished for merely existing (much like Adam and Eve) and discontent with the unfairness of that seeks to punish his creator and bring about his downfall. So, Victor is Promethean in the sense that he tried to ‘steal’ the knowledge of how to create life, but instead of being punished by god or other gods is punished by his creation itself.

Where does that leave Victor Frankenstein’s creation? His creator summarily cast him out as a wretch. He was, if I may channel some of my inner Hitchens by way of Greville for a moment, ‘born sick and commanded to be well’ with his creator offering no sympathy or aid. The creature, despite no support system whatsoever, goes on to learn and grow, but is still rejected by the rest of humanity for being different. He succeeds in destroying his creator, but then martyrs himself. Victor’s creation, having no purpose to his life but revenge basically just wanders off to die after achieving his goal. There’s a lesson in that.

Last week on NPR’s Science Friday their book club segment reviewed Frankenstein (embed below). They raise an interesting observation that Victor could have avoided his fate if, after bringing his creation to life instead of ostracizing him as a monster he instead offered support and nurturing. The panel speculated that these ideas stemmed from Mary’s rumination about the nature of parenthood. It’s interesting through the lens of Victor as the creator/god character to think about how this could also be a reproach of theism. The creature, as the everyman with a theistic upbringing, feels abandoned and seeks to destroy his creator. In much the same way, some theists grappling with the clear absence of the god they’re told exists can become the most ardent anti-theists. Definitely a discussion worth checking out.

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  • Frank

    I can’t stand that old cliche that Victor Frankenstein is “the real monster.” Mary Shelley goes to great lengths to portray Frankenstein as a brilliant man who loves his family and wants to help people, but he’s brought to ruin by a single flaw that leads him to sin at a crucial moment. That’s the textbook definition of a tragic hero.

    So Frankenstein gets completely wrapped up in his project of creating a man, barely eating or sleeping, and then when he actually succeeds and the Creature comes to life, he snaps out of it, freaks out, and runs away. That’s a shitty way to treat his creation, sure, but it’s also a completely understandable human reaction to finding a monster in the living room. And he comes back! He didn’t even really ditch the Creature, the Creature just wandered off while he was out of the house having a panic attack.

    Frankenstein’s sin: not thinking things through very well, and then running out of the room in a panic when something legitimately horrifying happens.

    The Creature’s sin: multiple premeditated murders.

    People think that just because the Creature is sympathetic, and is against Frankenstein, that Frankenstein must be “the real monster,” but this isn’t a Superman comic with a clearly defined good guy and bad guy. This is more like the Iliad, a war between two sympathetic sides that ends badly for both.

    As for the other popular cliche about Frankenstein — that it’s a warning about the dangers of mere mortals “playing God” — as you point out, nobody who willingly marries a guy like Percy Shelley, and hangs out with Lord Byron, could possibly be all that concerned about Christian piety.

  • Funny enough while writing this I was thinking that Icarus might correlate better to Victor than Prometheus. Not so much the hubris to try but more of an issue of workmanship. As Randall Munroe from XKCD once said, Icarus is “a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive”.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    For those who never actually read the novel -> https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84 As a kid I saw many many many different depictions of ‘the Frankenstein Monster’ and it was not until just a few years ago that I finally got around to reading the original. Boy was I surprised.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Umm.. IIRC Victor ran and never stopped running. The whole story was about ‘the monster’ trying to track him down. Been a while since I read it. Maybe I’ll re-read this weekend.

  • Frank

    That comes later. Initially, Victor runs out of the house, takes a walk to try and clear his head, and unexpectedly runs into his friend Henry, who has come to check on Victor because he has gotten so absorbed in his experiment that he’s stopped writing home. He and Henry return to the house, the Creature is gone, and Victor collapses from one of those nervous attacks that only ever seem to happen to characters in 19th-century novels. Henry then spends “several months” nursing him back to health before they return to Geneva. It’s only then that the Creature shows up again and starts taking his revenge.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Been a few years since I read it. I’ll have to spend some time with it this weekend. Love me some project gutenberg. A HUUUGE free librar just a few keystrokes away. Eat your heart out Alexandria (:

  • Frank

    It’s really great, and I still hold out hope for a well-done, faithful film adaptation. Lots of Dracula movies get the tone and character basically right, even as they take huge liberties with the story, but Frankenstein (the novel) is so much richer, darker, stranger, and more thoughtful than any of the films that have been based on it that I almost don’t want to call any of them adaptations. There are no good ‘Frankenstein’ movies, only movies that are kinda sorta loosely inspired by ‘Frankenstein.’

  • Nos482

    Now read Dracula… never trust a movie.

  • Nos482

    There is ONE good Frankenstein movie… even though it too is only a loose adaptation; and a parody.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inqdiNVzQcc

  • Cozmo the Magician

    TBO, I started reading it shortly after finishing Frankestein. But never finished it. I found the disjointed back and forth between narrative and letters and such to much. I just didn’t enjoy the way the story was being being told. What I had read meshed pretty good with some of the movie adaptations I have seen though. MUCH better than anything poor Frankie ever got. Granted it could be that I had just finished Frankie’s tale that made Dracula so hard to get into. There is a major difference in stlye and genre there. I was planing on re-reading Frankenstein soon, but maybe I will try diving into Dracula again before doing that (:

  • You mean y’all don’t think the seminal musical adaptation “Doin’ it All for My Baby” by Huey Lewis and the News is good?! I’m shocked. SHOCKED

  • Kevin K

    I just watched the original Boris Karloff movie last night! Some of it was really awful (most especially the “science” around animating the monster), but a lot of it was just scary-fun. But yeah, I think the only relationship between the novel and the movie is the name of the main character.

  • Kevin K

    A masterpiece for sure.

  • Jim Jones

    Watch Nosferatu (silent). Holy smoke!

  • Jim Jones

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  • Kevin K

    Yes. Very spooky and powerful.