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The Soul of Frankenstein

James S. Gidley

Surely we don't need to take Frankenstein seriously, do we? Say "Frankenstein" and the image of a stumbling, grunting Boris Karloff, with his square forehead and electrodes protruding out of his neck, comes immediately to mind. This can be treated no more seriously than the 1931 special effects.

Such a reaction is the result of an all-too-common pitfall: the neglect of the original story in favor of watered-down derivatives. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is anything but silly. It is a novel of ideas, and the ideas that it develops are anything but trivial. They are the central ideas of what it means to be human, what it means to be made in the image of God—or not.

Yes, Frankenstein is a horror story, but understanding the horror is one of the entrances into the deeper meaning of the tale. Mary Shelley's own account of the genesis of the story is helpful here. In her famous preface to the second (1831) edition of the novel, she describes how she and her lover but not-yet-husband Percy Shelley were neighbors of Lord Byron at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. During a persistent stretch of rainy weather, the company amused themselves by reading ghost stories to each other. Being a literary crowd, they conceived the idea of having a contest to see who could write the best ghost story.

Initially, Mary was frustrated by her inability to come up with an idea. While she was struggling with this, the men of the company were engaged in intellectual discussions about the nature of man:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and [Percy] Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.[1] They talked of the experiments of Dr Darwin[2] ... Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism[3] had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.[4]

Having heard these discussions, Shelley later fell into a reverie and had a waking dream:

... 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, and then, on the workings of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.[5] His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated[6] would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening the curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror ...[7]

What sparked the terror in Shelley as she imagined this scene? After studying the story and its intellectual antecedents for several years now, I have come to the conclusion that it is nothing less than the horror of realizing that man is nothing more than a physical being.

To understand how the novel works out this idea, it is necessary to jettison a few myths about the story, myths that have long been propagated by theatrical productions. Myth #1: Body parts. The common image of the story is that Victor Frankenstein made his creature by stitching together parts of bodies snatched from graves, morgues, and laboratories. Of course, Mary had to be very vague about the technology involved, but what she does say points in another direction. Among many evidences of this, perhaps the most obvious and telling is that Frankenstein made the creature about eight feet tall:

As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large. After having formed this determination and having spent some months successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.[8]

Where would he find body parts, which, when assembled, would result in an eight-foot tall person? The image is that of Frankenstein manufacturing the body parts out of more basic materials.

Why is this important? If Frankenstein made the creature out of human body parts, then the theme of resurrection is inevitably intruded into the story. Movie-makers have been unable to resist the implications of this theme. For example, in the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff, the evil actions of the creature are explained by Fritz's (not Igor's) bumbling: he drops the scientist's brain that he is trying to steal from a university laboratory and has to make off with a criminal's brain. In the 1994 Kenneth Branagh version, ostentatiously entitled Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the creature "remembers" how to play a flute because it was an ability of one of the bodies from whose parts he was made, and Frankenstein successfully patches together his bride Elizabeth after the creature kills her. In the novel, there is no such hope of resurrection, and therefore no hope of redemption. There is only creation, fall, despair, and death.

Myth #2: "It's alive!" In the 1931 movie, Frankenstein, in the presence of several skeptical observers, cries out in exultation when the creature shows signs of life. This has become the quintessential image of the mad scientist, but it is a double myth, untrue to the novel on two accounts. First, in the novel, Frankenstein is utterly alone throughout the two-year process of creation. He has no assistant, nor are there any other witnesses of his success. Second, at the moment when the creature comes to life, Frankenstein is not triumphant, but horrified. This is how Mary pictured the scene in her waking dream. Frankenstein turns away from his creature and rushes from the room in disgust and dismay. After a brief, additional encounter with the creature, he flees from the house and does not see him again for almost two years.

On first reading the novel, this is one of its most puzzling features. We have become so accustomed to the maniacally triumphant mad scientist that Frankenstein's reaction appears to be not only grossly irresponsible but psychologically inexplicable. Why, at the moment of his success, after long, arduous labor, would he be revolted at his own creation? The answer goes back to Mary Shelley's waking dream and the intellectual discussions that led up to it. If Frankenstein can create a sentient being out of physical materials, then he, too, though a sentient being, is made merely of physical materials.9 The premise of Frankenstein sucks us into the vortex of a creation that is subject to no higher powers than are immanent in the creation itself. Man is capable of creating himself. While many would profess to regard this as the ultimate emancipation, Shelley was quite rightly horrified by it. Her horror is all the more convincing because she was sympathetic to the underlying idea.

Myth #3: The stumbling hulk. In the 1931 classic movie, Boris Karloff never says a word. He grunts and stumbles about in uncomprehending confusion and rage. It is comforting to know that the monster, while physically formidable, is no match for human intelligence. In the novel, on the other hand, the creature learns language and educates himself by clandestinely observing a family through a crack in the wall of their humble cottage. When he meets Frankenstein again about two years after his creation, he is his intellectual equal, and, if anything, more eloquent. Shelley pulls no punches. If Frankenstein can create an intelligent being, then that being will be his intellectual match.

In discussing the novel with students, I sometimes hear the quite reasonable objection: how can Frankenstein create something that is equal or superior to himself? Must not the creature be inferior to the creator? Biblically, a point well taken. But Shelley was dealing with evolutionary ideas. Though it would be another forty-three years until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, evolutionary ideas were already in the air. As noted above, the Shelleys were familiar with the work of Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who was one of those breathing such air. If evolution is true, then the superior can and does spring from the inferior. Why may it not come forth by way of invention and manufacturing rather than by way of procreation?

Another part of the horror is Frankenstein's realization that he has created something that threatens mankind with extinction because of its superior strength and at least equal intellect. This is the underlying horror of evolution, which is seldom admitted into public or academic discussion. If evolution is true, then there is no reason to think that human beings are the highest form of life that will ever evolve. Humanity is most likely destined to become extinct, like Neanderthal man, and to be supplanted by a superior species.

Mary Shelley underscores these points in the confrontation between Frankenstein and his creature that is at the center of the novel. Not only has the creature learned to speak, he has also read books. He refers most often to Milton's Paradise Lost. He berates Frankenstein for abandoning him, in contrast to the loving care that God bestowed on Adam. He demands that Frankenstein create for him a mate, as God created Eve for Adam.

Frankenstein's creature recognizes that the God who created Adam is spiritual and benevolent. This lends a reflected glory and dignity to Adam: he too is a spiritual being, fitted for communion with God and conversation with angels. And God is good to Adam. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is a mechanic, and his creature is a machine.

By coincidence, Frankenstein's creature had come into possession of Frankenstein's laboratory notebook and had read the story of his own creation. In contrast to the creation of Adam, the creature finds the story of his own creation to be filthy and disgusting. Again the underlying horror is the realization that he is a merely physical being.

Hovering over the novel is a word that is rarely used within it, and never with its theological meaning: soul. Frankenstein does not lose his soul, and no one in the novel warns him that he is in danger of losing it. Like his creature, he doesn't have one.

Because of its central theme, Frankenstein has a number of other theological implications, but I believe that it is the non-existence of the soul that lies at the heart of Mary Shelley's horror. True, scholarly critics do read the novel as a cautionary tale. The two main varieties of this view are the antitechnological and the feminist. In the former view, Frankenstein cautions against technology run amok; in the latter, Frankenstein cautions against men trying to make babies without women. Neither view gets to the heart of the matter, perhaps because that would call our culture's predominant philosophical commitments into question.

The general antidote to Frankensteinian horror is biblical theism; the specific antidote is a recovery of a robust soul-body dualism. Human nature is composed of two parts: one corporeal, having weight, parts, size, etc., the other incorporeal, without parts or dimensions. One is mortal, the other immortal. Ironically, one of the fashions of modern theology, even in — perhaps especially in — Reformed circles, is the denial of soul-body dualism in favor of some sort of monism, which is sometimes described, somewhat misleadingly in my view, as holism. This plays into Frankenstein's hands.

Frankenstein vividly brings to life the implications of an abstract idea that was radical in Shelley's day but mainstream in our own. It shows us that philosophical materialism is hopeless and horrifying. Shelley is also showing us that philosophical materialists, whatever their protestations to the contrary, know this.


[1] I.e., transmitted or imparted.

[2] Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin's grandfather.

[3] Named for Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), an Italian physiologist who stimulated muscle tissues in frogs to contract under the influence of an electrical current.

[4] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 8.

[5] Following various literary critics, I regard this sentence as more indicative of the sentiments of 1831, when England was approaching the Victorian era of dignified propriety, in religion as in everything else, than those of 1816. Yet even if this is a later sentiment layered over the original events, notice how Shelley describes God's creation: a mechanism.

[6] I.e., transmitted or imparted.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 54.

[9] Many scholarly critics, while typically ignoring the theological implications, have seen that there is a resemblance between Frankenstein and his creature. It is not merely a blunder that the nameless creature is usually referred to by the name of his creator.

James Gidley, an ordained elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the Engineering Department. Mr. Gidley is a member of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Christian Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant, June-July 2007.

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