What Makes a Monster?


By Susan J. Wolfson

Within a decade of its publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was already a potent reference for cultural anxiety. Two centuries later, it’s our default lexicon for an array of disturbing political and scientific novelties. “We have created a Frankenstein,” one reporter murmured describing the horror of Hiroshima. This power of massive de-creation has been complemented by new creations such as Dolly, “the lamb formed by cellular biologists in Scotland and fused into life by electric shock, as was the Monster in ... Frankenstein,” to quote William Safire, in a 1997 New York Times op-ed, for whom this event provoked “thoughts about good and evil, God and humanity.” Anxiety about genetics replacing Genesis proves hard to dispel. In 2005, Dr. Stephen Levick turned the tables but kept the myth, asking in a letter to The New York Times Magazine: “Which is the real monster? Chimeric stem-cell science or the political [his italics] use made of it by opponents to all embryonic-stem-cell research?”

The oscillation between assigning “Frankenstein” to both the cause and result emerges from the 19th-century trend of misnaming the Creature “Frankenstein.” By 1838, less than a decade after Shelley’s revised 1831 Frankenstein was issued in Bentley’s Standard Novels, Prime Minister William Gladstone described scientifically engineered hybrid mules as “Frankensteins of the animal creation.” In her novel, Shelley exposes Victor Frankenstein’s science as a demonstration of monstrous egotism. More than divine presumption, his science symbolizes a monstrous failure of human responsibility. Even before Victor animates his Creature, there is monstrosity in the mode of research: grave-robbing. In the novel’s surreal dream-logic of modern genetics, the helpless Creature’s monstrous aspect shimmers as a manifestation of his creator’s moral monstrosity. It is a gothic Genesis: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, and after our likeness.”

Keith Jochim, as the Creature, in a scene from the 1981 Broadway production of Frankenstein written by Victor Gialanella; photo by Martha Swopes. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Frankenstein was conceived in June 1816, a year or so after Napoleon Bonaparte, a monster to many, was defeated at Waterloo and exiled to a remote island in the Atlantic. The novel’s events conclude in the late 1790s, near the time Napoleon launched his European war. This was a decade of political and social developments described as monstrous: foremost, the French Revolution. To its champions, the ancien régime was a monster of tyranny, decadence, and corruption. Shelley’s father, William Godwin, depicted its feudal system as a “ferocious monster, devouring … all that the friend of humanity regards with attachment and love.” Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, described the despots of modern Europe as a “race of monsters in human shape.” To conservatives, by contrast, the Revolution was monstrous. Edmund Burke described Revolutionary France as a “monster of a state,” with a “monster of a constitution” and “monstrous democratic assemblies.” While there is no reference to the French Revolution in Frankenstein, its first readers, less than 20 years on, would have felt the force of making the 1790s its setting, a decade for a sequence of catastrophes descending from idealism gone wrong.

No less pertinent to the daughter of Wollstonecraft, the 1790s was the decade of the first political arguments for the rights of women. Metaphors of monstrosity played a part in this polemic, too. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Wollstonecraft’s brisk rebuttal to Burke’s conservative alarm, she described the man privileged in the system of aristocracy as “an artificial monster.” Her sequel of 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, highlights monstrosity as a category for women in all social classes.

Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

In her revolutionary polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft argued women were — or ought to be — autonomous beings with lives, minds, and identities of their own. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

Wollstonecraft’s preferred term for the domestic and political subjection of women was slave. After decades of agitation and moral pressure, England abolished the slave trade in 1807. But the issue was by no means settled — slavery remained legal in Britain’s colonies until 1833 — and in this debate, too, notions of monstrosity were integral. Defenders of slavery insisted that African captives were more animal than human, monsters needing to be tamed by conversion to Christianity and an ethic of labor. Abolitionists countered that it was the capitalists, investors, and masters who were the real brutes and savages. Shelley’s Creature was often summoned into the abolition debate. “In dealing with the negro,” the ultra-conservative British Foreign Secretary George Canning cautioned Parliament in 1824, “we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength ... would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance.”

This is not to say that the Creature is an allegory of the French Revolution, or the Rights of Woman, or of slavery — rather, that the word “monster” is intrinsic to the polemical language of the day. The connection endured. James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein entered cinemas during an era when a black man could be lynched on suspicion of menace. Whale wanted its final scenes to evoke this atrocity: a torch-wielding mob chases the frightened, tormented man-child into a windmill in a scene that evokes both a lynching and a crucifixion. Whale revived this scenario in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), where the Creature is chased through a forest of limbless trees, caught, strapped cruciform onto a log, and battered by a mob that seems truly monstrous.

A mob searches for the Creature in the 1931 Universal Pictures film Frankenstein directed by James Whale. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

A mob prepares to hang the Creature in a scene from the 1935 Universal Pictures film Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

The 1818 title page of Shelley’s novel features an epigraph from Paradise Lost, Adam’s address to an absent God: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man, did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?” To Shelley, a mother several times, this complaint evokes the zinger that contrary children regard as profoundly original: “I didn’t ask to be born!” Yet as we read her novel, Milton’s verse recurs with a progressive deepening of meaning. Not only does its question become recalibrated as the Creature’s, but as it does we measure his claim to it when contrasting what God provides for Adam to what Victor Frankenstein fails to provide for his Creature. The mortal creator is a poor double for the God of Genesis: all pride, with no providence for his creation. Failing to create a being whom he can bear, Victor recoils from him as a monster to be abhorred.

The first monster in Frankenstein is not the creature, however. Routinely elided in theater and cinema is the frame tale of polar explorer Robert Walton. One morning a haggard being appears off the side of the ship on a fragment of ice. “I never saw a man in so wretched a condition,” Walton writes. This is the first dreadful wretch in the novel. Once on board, he faints dead away and then is revived by a nurturing crew: “we wrapped him up in blankets, and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen-stove. By slow degrees he recovered, and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.” Victor Frankenstein receives devoted, concerned care as a fellow human being. Everything he recounts hereafter bears this tremendous irony. Monsters are not born, Shelley proposes; they are made and unmade on the variable scales of human sympathy.

The first edition of Frankenstein, published by the London printers Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones in 1818. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

The Bible, I 26.

Burke, Edmund. Letter to a Noble Lord (London, 1796) 75; Reflections on the Revolution in France (2nd ed..; London, 1790) 283, 310; Two Letters [on Peace with Regicide France] 10th ed. (London, 1796) 66.

Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1796) 2, p. 96.

A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily (London: John Murray, 1864) xlvi.

Hays, Mary. Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (London, 1798) 97.

Levick, Stephen. Letter to the editor. The New York Times Magazine, 2005.

Safire, William. The New York Times, Feb. 27, 1997.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (London, 1794), p. 516.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men (2nd ed., 1790), p. 59.

This essay is an abridged version of a talk presented at The New York Public Library.

Watch a video of the talk on www.nypl.org

Susan Wolfson, professor of English at Princeton University, is the editor of Frankenstein: A Longman Cultural Edition, and, with Ronald Levao, editor of Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, An Annotated Frankenstein.
Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

After reading Susan J.

After reading Susan J. Wolfson's "What Makes a Monster?" I found it interesting that Frankenstein was thought of or "concieved" due to an evil man named Napoleon Bonaparte. Mary Shelley was surrounded by her family members describing this man as a monster of tyranny, decadence, and corruption. I was always taught that novels had inspiration; therefore, while reading this novel I questioned myself "how could any human being be so creative and come up with a story like Frankenstein?" Now that I read this article, I now know the answer to my question. This aided my interpretaion of Frankenstein because it helps me understand the importance of Frankenstein back in the day.
Also Wolfson brought to my attention that Victor was also a monster in the book. "Monsters are not born, Shelley proposes; they are made and unmade on the variable scales of human sympathy (Wolfson)." This opens my eyes and makes me realize that even though the creature was a monster due to his apperance, you can also be a monster according to your actions and how you are on the inside; therefore, Victor is also a monster. This makes me realize that the creature and Victory had similarities.


#4 While reading this essay,

While reading this essay, i came across a line that made me think about the novel differently. The author of this essay, Susan Wolfman, expresses the creation of Frankenstein's monster as, "a monsterous failure of human responsibility." She states that the monster was being created from bad intentions, such as grave-robbing. By Susan Wolfman putting the story of Frankenstein into this type of perspective, I looked at it somewhat different. Instead of thinking Frankenstein was created and then was an evil monster when he was brought to life, I now know that he was created evil with bad intentions. Frankenstien's monster started out evil in the first place, which changes the way I look at the rest of the story.


I read "What Makes a

I read "What Makes a Monster?"

One thing that I found that made me think of another side to monstrosity was that being a monster doesn't mean looking like a horrible creature or being a distructive person. Dr. Stephen Levick brought up a point in his letter to The New York Times Magazine by asking, "'Which is the real monster? Chimeric stem-cell science or the political [in italics] use made of it by opponents to all embryonic-stem-cell research?'" The question that came to me after reading this was, "what if we are the monsters?" Maybe the things that we do are considered 'monsterous'. If we were the monsters, maybe the people around us and influence us are making us monsters. For example, Mary Shelly's parents thought that society was monterous, and maybe that is why she decided to write about something horrible and bad, like Victor and The Creature.


4.) I read the critical

4.) I read the critical theory essay by Wolfson, titled "What Makes a Monster?," in which the author argued about where the true nature of the Creature came from. The novel Frankenstein was written when the French Revolution and other conflicts were occuring at the time. Back then, the first readers would have connected the nature of the Creature with the monstrous and violent acts that were happening around their lives. I did not make this connection about the Creature's nature being comparable with the history of the time when the novel was written. For example, the 1790's can be described as "... a decade of political and social developments described as monstrous: foremost, the French Revolution" (Wolfson). Furthermore, "Edmund Burke described Revolutionary France as a 'monster of a state,' with a 'monster of a constitution' and 'monstrous democratic assemblies' (Wolfson). The monstrous acts of the Creature can be seen when he murders innocent William. The nature of Creature's "monsterness" can be related to the time in history when the novel was written.


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