The Science of the First Science Fiction Novel: Why We Get the “Monster” So Wrong

The Frakenstein’s Monster you are familiar with is not the one Mary Shelley imagined in 1818. The patchwork of limbs, groaning and marching, undaunted, into the world, is less what is described in the novel, and more a “Frankenstein” of a century’s worth of artistic license. In fact, the first illustrations of the Monster is notably not very monstrous. There are no screws coming from his head, no stitched limbs, no green skin or scowling brow. Instead, he is depicted as a massive, somewhat androgynous figure. But, how did we get to the iconic image of a lumbering, grunting giant? A search through the text offers no answers — the Creature is described as more of a huge living corpse, but fully, however horrifically. formed. Instead, the explanation lies outside the novel, in the hands of the illustrators, directors, and screenwriters who reanimated the novel again and again.

By far, the greatest modern influence on the depiction of the Creature has been the 1931 film by James Whale, where Boris Karloff’s performed the iconic “zombie walk,” complete with the recognizable green-tinged skin, slick black hair, and boxy features (Diedrich, 2018.) No pre-film depictions of the monster follow this design. In fact, none of the nineteenth-century adaptations of Shelley’s work either cast Victor as a physician (in the novel, he never finished any medical school), or the monster as a re-animated, stitched-together corpse (Johnson, 300).

The shift to a green, zombie-esque Creature only occurred post-World War I. Jeffrey Johnson, in his piece, “Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume? Revising the Popular Image of Frankenstein,” proposed that the appearance of the creature on film was influenced by increasingly necessary, if brutal, surgeries, such as crude facial reconstructive surgery.  After the war, the Creature appeared as a re-animated body, which Johnson believes was likely influenced by the amount of World War I veterans living with poorly done reconstructive facial surgery, limb re-attachments, and amputations. Other changes — such as the Creature transformation from an eloquent, if terrifying, abomination to a groaning, stiff-limbed, violent one — may also be rooted in post-War trauma. Many veterans came home with debilitating neurological and psychological damage, prone to violent rages, episodes of post-traumatic stress, and neurologically rooted movement disorders. Johnson proposes that these anxieties may be projected onto the Creature, a monster borne out of the reckless arrogance of “Dr.” Frankenstein, rather than a generation of men transformed by a senseless War and fragmentary medicine (Johnson, 295.)

If all of these iconic features of the Creature were added on a century later, then what was Shelley’s vision? The Creature in the novel was described with, “ yellow skin scarcely cover[ing] the work of muscles and arteries beneath…watery eyes. . . shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips. . . . A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch” (Shelley, 84). The Creature’s horror came from his uncanny corpse-like appearance, and not scars or bolts (Johnson, 304). In fact, it seems likely that Shelley intended for the Creature to be imagined as something grown from a chemical laboratory rather than surgically formed. Although Shelley indeed described the collection of corpses, the text did not explicitly state that the body was created from those parts.

When Frankenstein began his endeavor to create life, he “collected bones from charnel houses…dissecting rooms, and the slaughter-house” (Shelly, 81). There was no mention of any sewing together of body parts, and in fact it would be likely impossible due to the various sizes of organs brought together. Further, the months between the collection of different parts would likely have made any preservation and re-organization of parts unlikely, since around nine months occurred from the first mention of collection to the final creation. How, then was the Creature created? (Johnson, 295).

The answer likely lies in contemporary theories of spontaneous generation, proposed by Erasmus Darwin, a known influence on Shelley and her constituents. This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that, in the 1831 edition, Shelley mentioned that, “perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth” (Johnson, 300). Shelley did not indicate that the body is brought together from disparate parts. Instead, life was generated or “manufactured” in the manner that Erasmus Darwin described: a soup of chemicals that sprouts multicellular life, rather than a sack of meat, sewn together.

Further, Shelley’s description of the process of discovery mentioned no lifeless body or bodies being surgically reanimated and reunited. Instead, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I [Victor Frankenstein] succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (Shelly, 81). The creation of life described here was a spontaneous, chemical process that “generates” animation, rather than a visceral, surgical one that reconstitutes it (Johnson, 299). Consider, as well, her familiarity with the experiments of Galvani, where corpses were shocked into twisting and contorting, as if alive. If there is a way to reanimate matter, the contemporary science pointed to the presence of some vital substance that caused “generation and life,” something that could be harnessed to “manufacture” of life.

Maybe the best image we can garner outside the text of what Shelly envisioned exists in the first visual representations of Frankenstein (above). This edition was personally authorized by Shelley, and hence the illustrations should be somewhat akin to her own conceptualization of the characters (Johnson, 295.) There is no sign of any of a surgical table or stitches on the frontispiece illustration. Instead, the Creature lays upon the ground, against some sort of barrel-shaped vat, pooled in light from the device, possibly references to the primordial soup of Erasmus Darwin and the lightening of Galvani. It should be noted that the Creature is not visibly or dramatically deformed, but a whole, intact body (Scott, 208.) The illustration shows the hulking form, but the body itself is proportional and whole.

The backdrop of spontaneous generation, and the effects of World War I on our modern conceptualization of the Creature, give contour to our understanding of illustrations of Frankenstein.  Through centuries of reinterpretation, the public consciousness of the first sci-fi novel has adapted as new theories have presented themselves, showing the remarkable resilience, endurance, and malleability of such an iconic story. But, to truly appreciate what Shelly had done, we must contextualize her work within the burgeoning science she based her novel off. The creation of the Creature was not feverishly dreamed up from ghoulish fantasies, but the result of an imagination that synthesized contemporary understanding of life and creation into, “What if?” That same keen curiosity and creative flexibility continue to reappear again and again in reinterpretations of Frankenstein. Hence, even as the appearance of the Creature changes, the essence of Shelley’s vision stays true.


Diedrich, Lisa. “Being-becoming-monster: Mirrors and Mirroring in Graphic Frankenstein Narratives.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 36 no. 2, 2018, pp. 388-411. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/lm.2018.0020

Johnson, Jeffrey Allan. “Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume? Revising the Popular Image of Frankenstein.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 36 no. 2, 2018, pp. 287-311. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/lm.2018.0015

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus: The Original 1818 Text. 3rd ed. Edited by D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2012.

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