Technically, the question posed above is misleading. Frankenstein was never a real person, but a creation of English novelist Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) imagination. The idea came to Shelley in 1816 while she and her husband vacationed with Lord Byron and some friends. Byron, a widely successful and renowned writer and Romantic poet of the time, challenged Shelley to a friendly competition. Who could write the best horror story?
Shelley rose to the challenge. Her Gothic novel touches upon themes of arrogance, responsibility, vengeance, and monsters being made, not born. This is the real Frankenstein.
Misconception # 1: It’s Just a Dumb Horror Story
Many do not understand the complexity of the themes in Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. It is understandable why. After all, the image of a freaky monster, composed of stitched-together body parts, being reanimated by a mad scientist who shocks his corpse back to life with a foreign contraption, is undeniably iconic.
However, this representation of Frankenstein neglects the more poignant purpose of the story. It is about much more than a dumb, scary monster being brought to life and hunted down by an angry mob. For starters, the story was influenced by very real conversations happening in the scientific field at the time. Scientific advancements began theorizing about the possibility of reanimating dead corpses, and ensuing ethical questions were raised. Shelley incorporates the essence of this controversy by imagining a scenario where such a thing actually happens and goes awfully awry.
In doing so, Shelley communicates subtextual themes about man playing (and failing at being) God, science going too far, and the tragic descent of a being—who did not ask to be born—into villainy after he is scorned by the world and even his creator. The monster is not a bumbling idiot as he is often portrayed, but an intelligent, articulate, and sensitive being who undergoes a transformative character arc throughout the story (for the worse).
There are even latent themes of feminism in the work. Society’s rejection of the monster is solely based on his abhorrent appearance, comparable to the prejudice women experience because of their own anatomical makeup. In both cases, the victims are arbitrarily ostracized due to their possession of attributes they have no control over and which do not determine the content of their character. Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a feminist writer and philosopher herself, so it tracks that Shelley would have inherited some of her beliefs (especially facing similar adversities as a female writer in the early 19th century).
Misconception # 2: The Monster is the Bad Guy
The true horror of Frankenstien is not the repulsive monster himself, but the tragedy surrounding his creation.
The monster is innately good upon his creation. When he is first brought into this world by his creator, the monster has no ill will toward anyone. He displays normal human desires—to learn, to communicate, to love, and to be loved in turn. Despite these positive aspects of his character, the monster is hideous. Because of this he is exiled from society, unable to seek nor receive the companionship he so desperately craves.
Every desire the monster has is denied by those who do not like the way he looks—including his own creator who detests and spurns his creation. He does not contribute to the circumstances which make him initially loathed and feared. It is the rejection he faces which turns him into a true monster. His resentment grows and he seeks vengeance. His initial “feelings of kindness and gentleness, which [he] had entertained […] gave peace to hellish rage” (Frankenstein, p. 143).
In the narrative, it is not the monster that we should be ultimately critical of, but the scientist who made and abandoned his creation. The scientist irresponsibly brings something into the world that he is unable to properly care for (or even accept). The scientist’s neglect of his creation is framed as the ultimate villainy.
Misconception # 3: Frankenstein’s Name
Over the centuries since Frankenstein’s publishing, there has been mass misconception about who the name “Frankenstein” actually refers to. Although the name conjures up a big, green, ugly monster, it is actually the name of the scientist who created him: Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The monster himself is given no name in the narrative, revealing his utter dehumanization.
Frankenstein is a cultural phenomenon that gets the attention, but perhaps not the genuine appreciation, it is owed. Better understanding the novel’s author, contexts, themes, and characters makes for an even more intriguing, and haunting, read.