We all know the Frankenstein story: Mad scientist, through a special alchemy of repurposed flesh and raw electricity, invests a humanoid creature with life. The creature then proceeds to turn on his creator, and in this act of rebellion we?re meant to understand the ill-fated consequences of intellectual hubris, the dangers of playing God, the limits of science, and the folly of supposing that man can ever master nature. At least that?s the dominant reading.
And then, of course, there?s the look: Thanks to Boris Karloff?s inspired debut as the monster in the 1931 movie version of ?Frankenstein? ? and thanks to the relentless reproduction of this image in popular culture and on Halloween costume racks ? Dr. Frankenstein?s monster has come down to us as the lumbering, greenish, bucket-headed creature of genre horror. This version of the creature is in many ways a pitiable figure, childlike in its helplessness, almost sweet, but ultimately a moron.
However, this is entirely at odds with the novel that first gave life to the creature. In Mary Shelley?s original, the creature is physically disfigured, yes, but he?s emotionally sensitive, too, and psychologically complex. And he?s smart. He?s read Plutarch, Milton. In fact, Shelley takes as the novel?s epigraph a line from Milton?s ?Paradise Lost?: ?Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?? It is the question that floods the entire novel: Why am I here? What purpose can I make of this life?