The Harsh Lessons of “Frankenstein”

Mary Shelley’s seminal work exposes the dark side of human nature.


“I was expecting this reception,” is all Monster can say after being verbally accosted by his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The two have met on Montanvert. Both have a score to settle.  

It’s been two years since Victor has laid eyes on the being he created. Victor feels nothing but rage, because the wretch (as he calls him) has murdered his little brother. By the end of the story, Monster will have killed everyone Victor loves: his brother, his best friend, his wife.  

But Monster’s rage is understandable, too. Moments after being brought to life, his creator rejects him and leaves the laboratory. New, and barely conscious, Monster stumbles into Victor’s bedchamber (where Victor has fallen into a fitful sleep) and watches his “father” until he awakens.

Monster smiles and reaches out. Victor flees the apartment, leaving his creation once more, this time to wander out alone into the Swiss countryside. Monster is confused, helpless, and in pain. He sits by a stream and weeps. What he wants more than anything is human connection, but when people encounter him, they run away or resort to physical attack.

And therein lies the central psychological question of Frankenstein: Who is the real monster?

To grapple with this question, we must sort our baggage. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was an instant hit upon publication in 1818, but contemporary readers are more likely to have been influenced by the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff. Though dangerous, the movie-monster’s childlike disposition inspires our sympathy. It’s this monster we think of, with his lumbering gait and square-head, not the watery yellow eyes and decaying skin of Shelley’s original.

The monster from the novel is both far worse and far better than popular imagination conceived: His aforementioned skin covers only a portion of his muscles and arteries; he is much larger and more agile than the average man, scaling mountainsides in mere minutes, enduring cold, harsh climates on less food than his human counterparts. (For comic relief, he’s vegetarian.)

He reads Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives with ease. He’s sentient and articulate, and counter to our empathic interpretations of him, he understands the principles of morality but kills members of Victor’s family anyway for revenge.

If Shelley had thoughts of morality, they were surely of a different variety than what we think of today. It’s been long established by scholars that she stitched together themes from foundational works (Greek mythology, Genesis, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Faust, and others) which were meant to repel in their unified, refurbished form.

Monster, whom the ambitious Victor constructs of various dead-body parts, is Shelley’s metaphor for the intrusions of objective methods into artistic theory. She wrote the novel as a warning: Allow creative beauty to retain its mystery. (She also wrote the novel as a challenge, but that’s a different essay.)

Nearly 200 years later, the debate about whether beauty can be measured continues, but not with Frankenstein. Today, popular and academic interpretations coalesce largely around Victor as the abandoning parent — and Monster as the faultless, traumatized child — a naked clue to our Freudian heritage and its parent-blaming spinoffs. Pushed further, a contemporary reading of the novel inflames our dread in the postcolonial era, the understanding that heinous acts are produced, reproduced, and catching; that trauma lives on, and responsibility, we tell ourselves, flows back through time.    

Now, an adult-child, Monster confronts Victor on Montanvert. Monster believes — as we all have in desperate moments — that a bargain with his offender might heal old wounds. He begs Victor, “Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

But what will make Monster happy? A beloved, of course. In exchange, Monster promises to “quit the neighbourhood of man” with his new companion, never to bother anyone again.

Victor agrees and begins creating the female monster but grows increasingly tormented by moral questions: What if the monsters rampage around the Earth killing people? In a chilling fit of trepidation, Victor rips she-Monster to pieces. Monster retaliates by murdering Victor’s best friend, Henry, and vows to continue the bloodshed until Victor is as lonely and miserable as he, threatening, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night.”   

Monster, an intelligent, empathetic being, fails to rise above the revenge cycle, even with a clear understanding of virtue. In his own words: “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm.” 

Gleaning lessons from the books he reads is one thing, but Monster is fertile enough to apply these lessons via introspection: “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” He quests for meaning even as he intends to forge it in the darkest of places. Monster represents depth without morality and feeling without responsibility.   

Meanwhile, Monster’s philosophical (albeit disturbing) capabilities dwarf Victor’s superficial, one-track mind. Consider what Victor says, years before, about Henry’s study of languages: “I did not, like him, attempt a critical knowledge of their dialects, for I did not contemplate making any other use of them than temporary amusement.”

Victor’s reductive thinking leads him to believe life is nothing more than a collection of body parts plus energy. When he proves himself right by creating Monster, he’s horrified to the core. But why does the result of Victor’s work disturb him so much after he’s been obsessively pursuing it (ignoring family and friends in the process) for years?

The answer is simple: He doesn’t have self-knowledge. Victor, a learned man who never learns the right lessons (even as he accepts the weight of his mistakes), represents intelligence without depth, morality without feeling, and ambition without foresight.

For this reader, the true horror of the novel lies in Monster’s heinous victimhood, in his inability to let go of an unworthy father. Monster sacrifices his fine nature to have the full attention of Victor, who in turn vows to hunt Monster to the ends of the Earth in order to destroy him.

This obsessive pursuit makes Victor into a better and more complete companion than Monster could have ever envisioned. And who among us, at one time or another, hasn’t wished for such a singular and unremitting interest from the men who created us?       

Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals such as Prairie Fire, FREEFALL, and Red Tuque Books. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. She would love to hear your thoughts on Frankenstein in the comments section of this article. Please join Dorothy in reading Moby-Dick, which will be the subject of her next column.                            

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