When it comes to classic science fiction, you have two kinds of people: those who call the monster “Frankenstein”, and those who smugly point out that Frankenstein was its maker; the monster was never named in the book. Let me assert a third category: those who read the book and realized that Victor Frankenstein was the real monster.
Most people, when thinking of Frankenstein, imagine the classic movie scenario: A mad scientist, with his trusty disfigured sidekick Ygor, places the brain of a murderer into a corpse and through lighting-powered electricity brings the monster to life. The monster gets out of control, escapes, befriends a little girl, is confronted by angry villagers, is chased into an old mill, which is then set on fire, presumably killing him. There are slight variations of the story, but that’s the gist of it. Nothing could be farther from the literary version of the story.
For starters, Frankenstein didn’t create the monster in a castle, using electricity. He did so in his apartment while studying at the university, and Shelley largely skips the process. From the little description we have of the monster’s creation, and additional details when the monster’s bride is created, it appears the process involved putting together various body parts and infusing them with a certain chemical formula. In fact, I got the feeling that the process was further developed in HP Lovecraft’s Reanimator, so those interested in Frankenstein’s monster should check this story for a much better approximation than what the movies provide.
There wasn’t a little girl or a mob of angry villagers, either. Neither was there a deranged brain. In fact, the monster was eloquent, highly intelligent and full of empathy. His only crime was his appearance, which Victor Frankenstein was responsible for. After Frankenstein created the monster, he was afraid of what he’s done, and let the monster escape. He met him again months later, after his brother was murdered. The monster recounted his life in the wild, until he found shelter and stalked a family, in order to learn to talk, read and other important skills. The monster proved to be a very adept student, and just from observation learned all things civilization had to offer in a few months.
The monster also learned of love and felt lonely. He pleaded with Frankenstein to create a mate for him. Frankenstein was at first against the idea: he was repulsed by the monster’s appearance, and furious when the monster confessed to having killed his brother, in rage over Frankenstein making such a hideous outcast out of him. Later, Frankenstein agreed, and the monster promised to watch the progress from nearby.
Frankenstein moved to a small hut on the Orkneys to build a female monster, but got worried about two such creatures roaming the earth (despite the monster’s promises to leave civilization for good), and destroyed his work. The monster, seeing it, went on the promised retaliation, killing Frankenstein’s best friend, and later his bride on his wedding night. Frankenstein promised revenge, and the book ends as he dies on a ship that rescued him in the Arctic while pursuing the monster. The monster comes to see his body, laments that his revenge went too far and promises to kill himself.
The book portrays Victor Frankenstein as an entitled and melodramatic young man, who is too cowardly to face his own decisions. Some of this may be due to Shelley’s contemporary style, where men are effeminate, but for most of the book she seems to take pleasure in infantilizing Frankenstein down to a spoiled child. On the other hand, the monster is highly intelligent and mature, yet sensitive, almost as if it was Shelley’s idealized partner. The best contemporary approximation of the monster I can think of is Frankenstein’s monster in the TV show Penny Dreadful.
The monster is understandably upset at being created with the enormous disadvantage of being hideous to look at. Especially given his intellect and desire to socialize, being destined by its creator to lifelong ostracism is enraging, even though he only once loses his temper, when he kills Frankenstein’s brother. Other than that, the monster remains rational and methodical in his actions. To add insult to the injury, though, Frankenstein rejects his own creation thanks to the very same issue with his appearance. Even after he’s been made aware of the monster’s intelligence and largely good nature, he calls him a monster, demon or creature. He acts like a scared, spoiled brat, and destroys the life he created. Even when he is fully cognizant that further rejections will cost the lives of his loved ones, he remains stubborn. In my opinion, this makes Victor Frankenstein the true monster in the book, and the monster a mere victim.
The reader, though, should be aware of two facts. First, there is strong evidence that at least parts of the book were written by Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Second, there are several versions of the book. The original from 1818 was significantly altered in 1831. It is my belief that what I acquired was the 1831 version, but can’t be sure, as there were no relevant publication notes. Be it as it is, the literary confusion becomes especially prominent in the epilogue. Here, when Frankenstein lies dying, he is portrayed as a much stronger character, almost rugged and ruthless. He tried to explain his destruction of Frankenstein’s mate as a service to humanity. The contrast in his character between the epilogue and the rest of the book is very sudden and stark.
In the epilogue we can also spot publisher pressure in the open-ended conclusion of the story. The monster promises to kill himself and then disappears into the night. This creates the opportunity for a follow-up work where the monster doesn’t die. To my knowledge, Shelley didn’t capitalize on it, but that didn’t stop other authors. The late Steven Utley, for example, continued the monster’s story in a very inventive way in his short story Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole.
Frankenstein is widely considered as the first true work of science fiction. Despite its significance and name recognition, however, the book it relatively unknown. The public had been blinded by a massive misrepresentation by movies. This is good news for all book lovers: reading the original book, whatever edition you pick, is a very refreshing experience even after the two centuries since the original publication.