Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!

By Corinna Treitel
Associate Professor of History
Cofounder, Medical Humanities Minor

Frankenstein will soon turn 200. Mary Shelley's novel, first published in 1818, tells the story of Victor Frankenstein and his dream of using science to help humanity. A student of chemistry, Frankenstein withdraws from family and friends to uncover the secrets of life and death and eventually succeeds in making a creature from dismembered corpses. After Frankenstein flees in horror, the creature is left to make its own way in the world. The novel's drama lies less with the act of reanimating dead bodies and more with the creature's attempts to join human society and forge an emotional bond with its creator.

As both metaphor and myth, Frankenstein burst the bounds of the novel long ago. In the 19th century, the creature figured widely in coded discussions about slavery and abolition. It has remained a potent metaphor for racial otherness ever since. In the 20th century, the novel inspired numerous movies. These included Frankenstein (1931), which gave the scientist an assistant and turned the creature into a monster, as well as Blackenstein (1973), which refashioned the story for African-American audiences. Today, new technologies of life often provoke Frankenstein talk. The 1990s brought us "Frankenfoods" and "Frankenfarms." This May, when Chinese scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to alter human embryos, the ensuing debate contained generous doses of Frankenstein. Unwittingly echoing Victor Frankenstein's own justifications two centuries ago, scientists spoke of using CRISPR-Cas9 to help humanity. Meanwhile, critics invoked Frankenstein as they called for a research moratorium. Clearly, Frankenstein still matters.

No surprise, then, that 20th Century Fox is trying to make money at the box office with its new film Victor Frankenstein. Scripted by Max Landis (Chronicle and American Ultra) and directed by Paul McGuigan (Sherlock), the movie features James McAvoy as Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe (yes, of Harry Potter fame) as Frankenstein's assistant, Igor. In this iteration of the tale, Frankenstein is a medical student in London and Igor is the circus hunchback he rescues and cures. Together, they build and then kill a short-lived creature made of animal parts. When Igor refuses to go further, Frankenstein accepts the help of a wealthy benefactor and vows to make a creature of human parts. Along the way, we meet a Scotland Yard inspector convinced that Frankenstein is defying God and a trapeze artist turned courtesan who falls in love with Igor. I will not tell you the ending, except to say that love and friendship carry the day. It's Hollywood, after all.

Although the movie has good sets, nice special effects and lots of action, it contributes little to the party that Frankenstein's bicentennial deserves [Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature]. Most important, the movie has gutted the novel of its dark and dynamic soul. Shelley accomplished the making of the creature in just four chapters, then devoted the rest of the book (24 chapters plus ancillary material) to exploring what happened after the creature came to life. The movie, in contrast, ignores the crucial after-story and instead spends two hours reimagining the creation story in terms of toxic psychodynamics in the Frankenstein family, an unconvincing face-off between religion and science, and the saving power of male friendship. Victor Frankenstein may entertain, but it does not make you think.

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818.Shelley's novel, in contrast, does both. The novel's longevity turns on its ability to ask big questions while refusing to answer them definitively. Add to that its ability to provoke different questions in different readers and you have a novel that deserves a very big party. My first experience of the novel, for example, came when I was a student of chemistry, just like Victor Frankenstein, and the questions it made me ask concerned the vexed relations of science and society. Should scientists dare to alter living matter? I knew, of course, that the question was moot: They dare; they do. But more questions followed. How do we do such research ethically? What are our responsibilities to the organisms produced? Who should be involved in asking and answering such questions? I read the novel as a cautionary tale about why the research imperative might go awry — from Frankenstein's willful turn away from the social bonds of family and friendship in the moment of creation, to the selfish passions driving his research forward, to his inability to become a parent to the creature he has made. "You, my creator, detest and spurn me," cries the creature in one of their many confrontations. "You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind." I was and remain riveted by the voice and pathos that Mary Shelley gave a living being who was created by and from humans yet whose every effort to join the human community was foiled by humans themselves.

Want to celebrate Frankenstein's birthday? Skip the movie. Read the novel. It will make you think. And think again.

Ed. note: Stay tuned for future events at Washington University to mark the novel’s anniversary.