How Frankenstein's Monster Works

By: Robert Lamb  | 
Colin Clive, as Dr. Frankenstein, and Dwight Frye, as his assistant Fritz, prepare to bring their monster to life in a scene from the 1931 movie
What have we created?! Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

"Hear my tale; it is long and strange ... "

Withered lips utter these words. The speaker's face seems nothing more than a rotting mask of skin, barely stretched into place over sinew and vein. Wild, black hair cascades down the figure's massive shoulders, and gleaming eyes stare out through the tangled strands. Tattered garments adorn his towering frame.


Despite his size, the monster moves with agility and grace. Despite his brutish appearance, his speech betrays a formidable intellect. He is nameless. He is angry. His words steam in the cold air as he confronts the tormented chemist responsible for his very existence, a man named Victor Frankenstein.

Related in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's original 1818 novel, this encounter occurs halfway through a book already marked by the power of science and human misery. For Victor Frankenstein, this exchange is a confrontation with his brother's murderer, as well as the shameful fruit of his own scientific recklessness. For the creature, it is an audience with the man who formed his disfigured body out of cadavers and animal parts -- who gave him life only to abandon his creation to an unforgiving world.

This reunion of creator and creation results in a fleeting truce. Victor agrees to assemble a female companion for the creature, who in turn promises to spare the lives of Victor's remaining loved ones and depart for the wilds of South America. When Victor reneges on his promise, however, their peace collapses into a bloody feud.

This conflict is the backbone of the famous fictional work "Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus," a tale of vast scientific achievement and deep existential failure. The relationship between Victor and his creation is a complex one, far more nuanced than the man-versus-monster and brains-versus-brute scenarios splashed all over popular culture. Just who is this nameless, synthetic being? What cultural ideas does he embody, and why does his presence continue to haunt us?

In this article, we'll uncover the heart of Frankenstein's monster.


The Artificial Man in Myth and Mind

Profile of a monster
Monsters begin in the mind.
Jack Esten/Moviepix/Getty Images

In Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the titular character develops the means to instill the spark of life into an artificial being. While the 1818 novel certainly broke new literary ground, the notion of synthetic life hails back to the earliest stirrings of human culture.

Myth and folklore are rich with tales of humans or gods breathing life into humanoid statues. For the ancient Greeks, there was Pygmalion, whose ivory, female sculpture awoke with the help of the god Venus. Medieval Jewish folktales speak of golems, artificial beings brought into being via a tablet of sacred words inserted beneath the clay humanoid's tongue.


Regardless of whether divine intervention or human ingenuity accomplishes this feat, these examples depend on a certain degree of magical thinking. Long before we fantasized about bringing life to the lifeless, we learned to carry out this trick inside the mind.

Humans have a knack for attributing life to artificial likenesses. It's called anthropomorphism, and it refers to when we take nonhuman or impersonal objects and give them human or personal characteristics or behaviors.

A brick is just a brick, right? What happens when you paint a smiley face on it? It inevitably becomes a little harder (or easier) to throw that brick down a well because you've imbued it with a sense of being. This interesting quirk stems from something anthropologists call the law of similarity, which holds that humans inevitably link superficial, real-life resemblances to deep, unreal resemblances. A baby doll isn't an actual infant, but it resembles one enough to make it "real" to the child who plays with it. Here's a way to test the law of similarity on your own: Sketch the face of a loved one on a scrap of paper and then crumple it in your hand. Did you feel the connection your mind forms between the resemblance and the thing itself?

Out of this phenomenon, innumerable magical and religious practices emerge, such as harming a person's likeness to produce the same effect on the actual person. Such so-called sympathetic magic includes the burning of effigies and the use of voodoo dolls.

The roots of anthropomorphic thinking lie in the human capacity for reflexive consciousness, the ability to use what we know about ourselves to understand and predict the behavior of others [source: Serpell]. These empathetic qualities gave early humans an evolutionary advantage, allowing them to not only outthink other people, but also to fit the behavior of domesticated animals within the confines of human society.

As a curious side effect, these quirks of human cognition also enable us to dream about bringing man-made likenesses to life.

So where does all this magic meet Frankenstein's world of science? On the next page, we'll venture into the realm of alchemy.


Frankenstein's Alchemical Blueprint

An alchemist in a 1618 engraving
An alchemist chases the secrets of nature in this 1618 engraving. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In "Frankenstein," Victor ventures into his study of chemistry with a zeal for the antiquated world of alchemy. While his professor dismisses this enthusiasm as a grievous waste of time, alchemy ultimately inspires Victor to crack the secrets of life itself.

Alchemy during the 16th through 18th centuries was essentially a mix of early chemistry and occultism, crossing empirical research with mystical philosophy. Alchemists slaved over real (and sometimes explosive) chemical experiments, but they did so without the regulation of modern scientific method. Instead seeking guidance in magical texts and secret codes, they sought to transform base metals into gold and even achieve immortality via an elixir of life known as the philosopher's stone.


It was a meandering path to say the least -- and one that ultimately impeded the rise of modern chemistry [source: Wilford]. Yet some alchemists managed to stumble upon some genuine scientific discoveries. For instance, 17th-century German alchemist Hennig Brandt distilled countless buckets of urine in an attempt to turn the pungent liquid into gold. As you might expect, Brandt's experiment failed to produce the desired results -- but it did allow him to discover the element phosphorus. Alchemy might have been an imperfect field of study, but it was often the only game in town for inquisitive, talented minds such as Albertus Magnus and Isaac Newton.

The fictional Frankenstein's work closely resembles alchemical attempts to produce a minuscule artificial humanoid known as a homunculus. A medieval text known as the "Liber Vaccae" or "Book of the Cow" lays out the homunculus creation formula in bizarre detail. The process begins by mixing human semen with a mystical phosphorescent elixir and ends with a newborn homunculus emerging from a cow, growing human skin and craving its mother's blood inside a large glass or lead vessel [source: Van der Lugt].

Yes, it's all quite disgusting, but here's the point: While lost amid false concepts of spontaneous generation and magical tomfoolery, alchemists were pondering the possibility of creating an artificial "rational animal" through the learned manipulation of organic tissue.

At the time, it was widely believed that humans could mimic and manipulate such natural reproductive processes. But biological science was still incubating, and humanity's first breakthroughs came in the form of machines.


A Clockwork Frankenstein

Leonardo da Vinci studies human biomechanics.
Leonardo da Vinci studies human biomechanics.
Apic/Getty Images

While Frankenstein's monster certainly emerges from a legacy of alchemical homunculi and other magically created creatures, he has another distant ancestor in the automaton. An obsession of the ancient Greeks and Chinese, automatons were machines designed to mimic a living body. They were not intelligent in any sense of the word, but still served as a forerunner to modern computational robots.

Accounts of automatons date back as far as the fourth century B.C.E., when Greek poet Pindar wrote of animated statues on the streets of Rhodes and Archytas of Tarentum reportedly built a self-propelled mechanical bird [source: Babich]. Over time, countless engineers and inventors applied their intellect to mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic and electric mimicry of biological life. Their attempts ranged from Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century robotic knight, designed to walk and sit, to Jacques de Vaucanson's 18th-century digesting duck, which reportedly boasted both motorized chewing skills and a mechanical sphincter to mimic defecation.


Both da Vinci's knight and Vaucanson's duck demonstrate their makers' profound interest in biomechanics. Da Vinci was fascinated by human musculature and devoted long hours to the study of cadavers. For Vaucanson's part, his fascination with digestion and defecation may have stemmed from his own troubled bowels [source: Wood].

All this mimicry stems from the quest to understand biological life. The quest is not unlike that of homunculi-brewing alchemists -- and indeed, great minds such as the 13th century's Albertus Magnus experimented with both mechanical automation and alchemy. The difference, however, is that mechanical efforts produced tangible results, provoking public fascination and even outrage.

After all, if a machine can mimic the human body, then is the human body nothing more than a biochemical machine? And if we're machines, then what does it mean to be human? What, if anything, sets us apart from animals or dancing automatons?


Ghost in the Machine

Beyond the scars and stitches, Frankenstein's creation is a philosophically frightening monster.
Benjamin Shearn/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

Seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes viewed nature as primarily mechanical. He avoided the messier, existential complications of this view by defining the human soul as an independent force -- the "ghost in the machine," as philosopher and Descartes critic Gilbert Ryle would later describe it.

But is there a ghost at all? According to psychologist Paul Bloom, the human notion of a soul or an external mind stems from the fact that the human brain has no awareness of its own functioning. In other words, the conscious mind exists in its own blind spot, generating the illusion of its separateness.


It's a potentially volatile idea for a culture consumed by ego and religious cosmology. In 1748, Julien Offray de La Mettrie found this out firsthand when he published "L'Homme plus que Machine" or "Man More Than Machine," in which the French philosopher argued that the soul was but the product of the biochemical machine we call a body. The resulting public outrage forced de La Mettrie to flee his native Netherlands.

Victor Frankenstein withholds the details of exactly how he breathes life into his monster, but the being that rises from the operating table is fully human in mind if not in body. At first benevolent, the creature is driven to murder and rage by the cruel realities of the world.

As the novel's alternate title states, Victor Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus." The Greek mythological figure stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to man. Frankenstein takes the human condition out of the hands of divinity and places it within the grasp of science.

Nearly two centuries later, this transition still resonates throughout human culture -- and Frankenstein's monster looms tall as its avatar.


The Modern Monster

Monster and maker meet in the 1931 film "Frankenstein."
Monster and maker meet in the 1931 film "Frankenstein." John Kobal Foundation/Moviepix/Getty Images

In recounting his tale of scientific glory and personal hell, Victor Frankenstein skims over the pertinent scientific details. He discusses his alchemical inspirations and zeal for modern chemistry. He mentions cadavers and the effect of electricity on muscle tissue. He stares deep into the space between life and death. Beyond this, we can only guess how Frankenstein learned to "bestow animation upon lifeless matter."

Scientists of the 20th and 21st centuries, however, are a lot more forthcoming. Advances in synthetic biology and other fields continue to push the boundaries of human understanding and raise new existential dilemmas.


In 1952, researchers unlocked the mystery of DNA, and subsequent breakthroughs in genetics have empowered the science of cloning. In 2010, researchers created a synthetic bacterium in the lab -- the first one to be controlled entirely by man-made genetic instructions. Elsewhere, roboticists continue to develop increasingly complex, autonomous artificial intelligence and biologically inspired mechanical forms.

Through it all, Frankenstein's monster continues to resonate as a powerful model of unchecked scientific advancement -- as well as a reminder of the murky philosophical and ethical quagmires we wish to avoid.

Thanks in large part to film depictions, the monster's pop culture image is often reduced to a staggering, bewildered brute. But even if you take into account the original creature's intelligence and complexity, he is most certainly a monster in the true sense of the word. The word "monstrosity" originates from the Latin monstrare, which meant to show or illustrate a point. Our monsters embody ideas, fears and abstractions about the human condition.

Victor Frankenstein ultimately loses everything to the monster. He agrees to create a female companion for it, but destroys it in a rage and breaks their fragile truce. Provoked, the monster murders Victor's bride. In the end, the bloody feud condems both tormented souls to a death amid the Arctic wastes.

As a modern myth, "Frankenstein" taps into the fear that like Victor, we'll lack the wisdom or responsibility to control our scientific creations. The monster embodies such modern fears as a lab-created black hole, man-made plagues and nuclear annihilation. The story also poses the possibility that, like the monster himself, science will deliver us to a place where we find the integrity of the human body violated and the nature of the human soul scourged.

Explore the links below to learn even more about Frankenstein's monster and the advancement of science.


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More Great Links

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