Let's write a variation on a passage from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Without any context, read this snippet and write down what you think is happening, and anything you notice about the structure and language.

"Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred."

What is happening in this snippet? Is there anything in the language or structure that captures your attention?

"People think they know Frankenstein but what they often know is the manglings the novel has received in various film and TV adaptations."—illustrator John Coulthart

Frankenstein is one of the most famous novels in the world, but if you've never read it then your idea of the story is probably informed by this image:

Frankenstein front cover penguin random house 2020

The modern iconic representaion of Frankenstein's monster has two key features: he's dead and he's dumb.

Look at his corpse-green skin, his scars and stitches, his stroke-slumped face—he might be 'alive' thanks to mad science, but we all know really he's dead. He's zombie-plus.

And look at his block-like head, his drooping eyes, his dull mouth—no sign of light, curiosity, or intelligence. He's dumb as a rock. If you were to sum him up in a sound, this Frankenstein would be saying, "GUH..."

In contrast, the earliest art that came with the published novel was this etching, which tells a different story:

Frankenstein frontispiece illustration 1831

If you zoom in on the monster's face, the big blinking message is, "WTF!?"

Because unlike the shambling, grunting, walking dead cinematic version of the monster, the original creature is the opposite: he's hyper-self-aware, intelligent, articulate, emotional, and tortured by the idea that he is a reanimated corpse-collage with no-one to love him.

Frankenstein is a book about social and emotional upheaval

In the book, the creature isn't the only one freaking out. After all, it's a 19th century British gothic-romantic novel, so everyone's emotions are dialled up to 11. 

One reason is that in those days people kept dying young. Mary Shelley's own mother died the month after she gave birth to Mary. When she started writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was 19 years old, and she had already had one child who had died. She would have three more children in the following years, only one of whom would survive. Her husband would die after the birth of that fourth child. And that's just scratching the surface—if you want more bodycount, just go read Mary Shelley's Wikipedia page.

So: death. In many societies, we cope with the idea of our own mortality through religion, which gives meaning to our death. But in 19th century Europe, people hit an inflection point in science where the rate of discovery about nature started to seriously challenge religion as a source of power and meaning.

You can see all these themes in Mary Shelley's account of the conversations, and subsequent nightmare, that gave rise to Frankenstein:

"Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things... When I placed my head on my pillow... I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together; I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out... Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world."

So in a nutshell, Frankenstein is about a group of characters, including one newly reanimanted corpse, having an emotional breakdown while grappling with questions about life, death, god, nature, science, and human society.

(It's also about the emotional impact of hiking in Switzerland, but that's a subject for a different lesson.)

What's going on?

In this snippet, the monster curses Victor Frankenstein for having created him.

The passage comes about 2/3 of the way through the novel, when the monster—who has been on the run and terrorising everyone for the last hundred pages—corners Frankenstein on a glacier and forces him to sit down and listen while the monster offloads a bunch of emotional baggage.

Frankenstein's monster confronts his creator by John Coulthart

What's the monster angry about?

Being ugly, and being alone. He blames Frankenstein for the first, and sees the second as an inevitable consequence. At the end of this part of the novel, the monster will demand that Frankenstein create for him a female counterpart, because only a custom lady will overlook the fact that he is comprised of a variety of graveyard offcuts.

Why the fancy language and Biblical imagery?

The monster uses elevated language and Biblical references because he has taught himself English by reading John Milton's epic religious poem Paradise Lost, which is about the war between God and Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Also Victor Frankenstein is literally the monster's creator, so it makes sense for the monster to compare him to God.

At a meta level, the monster's crisis of identity and meaning is one that many of us experience in our lives, so the argument that the monster has with Frankenstein is one that many people have with their own version of God.

Hold on, how did a rampaging thing-of-the-undead come to read John Milton's 10-volume masterpiece?

One explanation is that Shelley and her husband and friends were really into Milton, so naturally the monster would be too. 

The novel's explanation is that while on the run and hiding out in the woods, the monster finds an abandoned satchel containing multiple volumes of poetry and from there goes to hide in a barn and embark on a journey of self-discovery that only great literature can ignite.

There are two more things you should know about Paradise Lost.

One is that Milton was in his 60s, blind, and riddled with gout when he composed this poem, so he had to dictate all 10,000 lines to a variety of friends and assistants, including his own daughter. Here's an artist's impression of that process:

Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughter

Looks fun!

The other detail we want to mention is that legendary 19th century German Romantic artist, Gustave Dore, produced an illustrated version of Paradise Lost which featured 40 badass engravings such as this:

Gustave Dore Paradise Lost engraving of angels at war

You might notice that these images of glowing clouds, arcing wings, and roiling limbs was so striking that it continues to be appropriated and reinterpreted to this day, including by contemporary performing artists such as FKA Twigs and Lil Nas X.