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The Theology of Frankenstein: Deism vs. Biblical Theism

James Gidley

Mary Shelley used a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost as the epigraph on the title page of Frankenstein:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?[1]

These lines, spoken by Adam after his fall into sin, imply that Frankenstein will be about Creation and Fall. In this paper, I will focus only on Creation. The evidence supports the thesis that Frankenstein is an essentially Deistic creation story, in deliberate contrast to the biblical creation narrative as reflected in Paradise Lost.

In assessing the creation theology of Frankenstein, it is first necessary to clear away an abiding misconception. It is commonly assumed that Frankenstein created his creature by stitching together parts of various dead bodies. Further, it is commonly assumed that these parts were relatively large, consisting of entire organs or organ systems: a head (or a brain), legs, arms, torso, etc. The novel itself, however, while never explicit about the process of creation, strongly suggests that Frankenstein did not use dead organs and organ systems, but manufactured tissues and organs from more basic constituents.

There are at least four strands of evidence for this view. First, Frankenstein says:

I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although now I found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.[2]

He contrasts “lifeless matter” to that which was once alive and had died. And how could he reanimate dead body parts any more than a whole dead body? Of course, Frankenstein’s disclaimer here is essential to the plot, since an ability to raise the dead would have allowed him to reverse the murders perpetrated by his creature. But this disclaimer has a much deeper meaning, as I shall argue later.

Second, Shelley’s own description of the genesis of Frankenstein suggests a contrast between the resuscitation of a corpse and the manufacture of a creature. In her preface to the 1831 edition of the novel, she says:

Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.[3]

Note that in the latter process the component parts are not taken from dead bodies but manufactured. That Shelley intended the latter process to describe what her Victor accomplished is plain from her later statement, where her “pale student of unhallowed arts [kneels] beside the thing he had put together.”[4]

Third, Frankenstein states:

As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved . . . to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.[5]

If he were stitching together large parts of dead bodies, why would the minuteness of the parts be a hindrance? If he were stitching together parts of dead bodies, how could he make them add up to a figure “eight feet in height, and proportionably large?” He must either find gigantic corpses or add extra body parts, neither of which is plausible within the novel’s setting.

Fourth, when Frankenstein sets out to manufacture the female creature, he relocates to the remote and sparsely populated Orkney Islands, where it would be impossible to find a sufficient supply of recently deceased bodies to stitch together. In describing his preparations for his second act of creation, Victor Frankenstein says:

I packed my chemical instruments, and the materials I had collected, resolving to finish my labors in some obscure nook in the northern highlands of Scotland.[6]

Shelley would understand, perhaps better than we do today, how impossible it would be to conceal the smell of rotting flesh. She does not, therefore, suggest that Frankenstein packed up dead bodies, but inanimate materials for manufacture. Another detail of importance is that he packed chemical instruments. Victor Frankenstein had been educated as a chemist, not as a medical doctor, though he does later study physiology.[7] His mentor, M. Waldman, first impressed Frankenstein with a lecture on the history of chemistry.[8] Victor states, after his illness following the creation of his creature, “the sight of a chemical instrument would renew all the agony of my nervous symptoms.”[9] Frankenstein’s creation is a triumph of chemistry, not medicine or biology, suggesting that Shelley conceived of life in purely materialistic terms.

The primary evidence for the common view that Frankenstein stitched together the parts of dead bodies is twofold. First, Frankenstein’s studies led him to investigate the process of decay in corpses in churchyards and charnel houses: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.”[10] But these activities were not for the purpose of manufacturing the creature, but for the purpose of understanding death and life:

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and of life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.[11]

While the concluding statement in the above quotation comes close to stating that he could reanimate the dead, it must be read in connection with his explicit disavowal of such an ability a page or two later, which I have already cited.

Second, when Frankenstein describes his materials of creation, he does refer to dead bodies:

I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.[12]

Even here, however, he does not explicitly say that these collected bones were raw materials for manufacture, though it seems to be implied. He may have taken them for further study, or as models to be copied in other materials. When he does a few sentences later explicitly mention materials, he says, “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials.”[13] Taking this evidence in the context of the narrative as a whole, the most that seems to be implied is that Frankenstein used some tissues from dead bodies, animal as well as human, for the construction of his creature.

So what? How does this absorption with the technology of Frankenstein’s achievement bear on the meaning of the novel? In particular, how does it bear on the theological themes of the novel? In a nutshell, Frankenstein is a creation story, not a resurrection story.

The possibility of raising the dead, even if only dead body parts, introduces the biblical theme of resurrection. There can be no resurrection theme in the novel without at least implicitly introducing the theme of redemption, and there is no redemption in Frankenstein. This is the deeper meaning of Frankenstein’s inability to reanimate corpses.

If this analysis is well-founded, then a general conclusion about the theology of Frankenstein emerges. The main themes of biblical religion are creation, fall, redemption, resurrection, judgment, and eternal life or eternal punishment. The theology of Frankenstein truncates this to creation, fall, and judgment. As a corollary, there can be no Christ figure in Frankenstein. If there is no redemption, there can be no Redeemer.

If Frankenstein is a creation story, what sort of creation doctrine does it espouse? Frankensteinian creation exhibits a number of contrasts with the biblical narrative.

First, the biblical creation of man was a consultative act: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’ ” (Gen. 1:26). At least since Augustine, Christian theologians have regarded this statement as revealing the Trinitarian nature of God. There is but one God, but he exists as three persons. God is never alone, for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three persons who are cognizant of each other and can converse and commune with each other. In contrast, Frankenstein’s act of creation is the act of a solitary individual.

Second, the Triune God creates man male and female: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The Triune God has within himself both unity of essence and diversity of persons. This provides the basis for creating a humanity with a diversity of individuals, particularly the diversity of male and female, and yet a unity or community. In contrast, Victor Frankenstein as a solitary creator can only create a solitary creature.

Third, the complementary account of creation in Genesis 2 adds to the contrast with Frankenstein: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Man is made of two parts, the dust of the ground, and the breath of life. The two parts proceed from two realms: the dust from the earth, the breath of God from heaven. The biblical creation account is inescapably dualistic. In contrast, Frankenstein creates entirely from the earthly realm. His “spark of life” is just another earthly element or force, probably electricity. Biblical man is soul and body; Frankenstein’s creature—indeed Frankenstein himself—is only body.

Frankenstein thus raises the issue of vitalism vs. materialism, and comes down strongly on the side of materialism. Marilyn Butler, literary critic and scholar of the Romantic movement, outlines the contemporary debate over vitalism between Dr. Abernethy and Dr. Lawrence, Percy Shelley’s physician and a champion of materialism. Abernethy, though putatively a vitalist, described the vital force as “some ‘subtle mobile, invisible substance,’ analogous on the one hand to soul and on the other to electricity.”[14] Lawrence astutely rejoined that “‘subtle matter is still matter; and if this fine stuff can possess vital properties, surely they may reside in a fabric which differs only in being a little coarser.”[15] To describe the vital force as a material substance or physical force is to concede the whole debate to the materialist position.

Butler goes astray, however, in identifying Victor Frankenstein as a bungling vitalist like Abernethy.[16] If Frankenstein were a vitalist, he vindicates vitalism by his success in animating his creature. But in fact, Frankenstein is a materialist, for he succeeds in creating his creature entirely with natural materials and with the aid of natural forces alone. His long nights in the churchyards and charnel houses were not prayer vigils, mystical ecstasies, or supernatural revelations; they were times of painstaking scientific observation. If the debates between Abernethy and Lawrence affected Mary Shelley, it seems more likely that they impressed upon her the idea that materialism was the only possible scientific alternative. Frankenstein is after all the tale of the modern Prometheus. In 1818, to be a modern scientist was to be a materialist.

Thus Frankenstein stands in resolute contrast to the biblical account of the creation of man. In Shelley’s crucial account of the creation,[17] she does not so much as mention the soul, whether to affirm or deny its existence. Whenever the word “soul” does appear in the novel, it can be readily understood as a reference to the inner feelings, and carries no ontological weight.[18] No one in the novel ever warns Frankenstein that his soul is in danger or that he might lose his soul. I conclude that Shelley meant us to understand that Frankenstein himself did not have a soul, in the orthodox, Christian, ontological sense. And this is not because Victor is especially monstrous or demonic. In Frankenstein, humans simply do not have souls in the ontological sense; such a view is ancient myth, unbecoming of the modern, scientific Prometheus.

A fourth contrast between Frankensteinian creation and the biblical narrative arises because the inbreathing of the breath of life in Genesis 2:7 speaks not only of the soul, not only of the origin of the soul in the transcendent realm, not only of contrast with the earthly realm which gives rise to the body, but also of the possibility and reality of communion between the Creator and the creature. God’s breathing in the breath of life is an intimate act of communion, a loving impartation of his own image. Therefore, Adam and Eve are not left to themselves, but God speaks with them. In both Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Old and New Testaments, the same word is used for “breath” and “spirit.” Therefore, the breathing of the breath of life into Adam suggests the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God creates the intimate communion between God and man.

Victor Frankenstein, in contrast, never has any communion with his creature. He does not have a spirit to impart to his creature. He never seeks his creature to speak to him; the creature must find him and can never be anything but an enemy to him. The creature himself recognizes the contrast with the biblical creation account as mediated through Milton:

Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.[19]

Fifth, the theme of communion is worked out in the biblical narrative in the creation of Eve. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ ” (Gen. 2:18). God himself recognizes Adam’s need and takes steps to meet it. In contrast, Frankenstein’s creature must accost him and demand a female companion, and Frankenstein, after reluctantly agreeing to create one, destroys the female creature before animating her.

In the biblical account, God creates Eve from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:21–22); this insures that she will be a suitable companion for him, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), as none of the other creatures of God could have been (Gen. 2:20). In contrast, Frankenstein cannot form a female creature from his male creature’s rib, or from any other part of him. His process of manufacture leaves open the possibility that every creature he makes will be sui generis, a new species, unrelated to any previous or subsequent creature he might have made or could make. Therefore his forebodings about the creation of the female are not sophisms but plausible:

she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn in disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species.[20]

Though he speaks of her as of the same species as his male creature, his forebodings are founded on a deeper recognition that she might not be. But whether one species or two, he cannot effect communion between his creatures. In contrast to the God of the Bible, Frankenstein cannot create diversity in unity, or unity in diversity.

Frankenstein, thus, does not fit the historic, orthodox, Christian view of creation. What does it fit? Deism.

Deism is a form of Christian heresy that purports to replace the supernaturalistic outlook of the Bible with a naturalistic view. For example, Deism requires no supernatural revelation. The Bible can only state truths that are derivable independently by the use of human reason, providing at best only a short-cut for lesser or lazier minds.

The Deistic view of creation is illustrated by the classic example of the pocket watch. The universe is like an exquisite watch that the Creator has made and wound up. It is now unnecessary for the Creator to have anything further to do with the universe, since he has wisely created it to run well without him.

Deism fits Frankenstein’s creative act closely. He creates, and then abandons his creature. His creature is able to discern what he needs to know about his creator without any revelation. He learns to speak, not because he is spoken to, but because he overhears others speaking. He learns from books, not because they were taught to him, but because he stumbles upon them accidentally. That is, he discovers language, it is not imparted to him.[21]

Thus Shelley’s depiction of the creature’s self-education, early regarded as the most original and effective part of the work, is a concrete depiction of the Deistic view of the universe. The creature’s self-education is thus a microcosm of the education of mankind over countless generations; “it can be read as an allegorical account of the progress of mankind over aeons of time.”[22]

There is a clinching argument that Shelley is writing a Deistic account of creation, which arises from the story of how the creature learns language. From his hovel on the side of a cottage, the creature observes the family in the cottage speaking to each other. Thus he begins to acquire the rudiments of language. His progress accelerates when an Arabian woman joins the family, and they assist her to learn French by reading to her from Constantin Volney, The Ruins of Empires. Volney describes the creation of mankind as follows:

Formed naked in body and in mind, man at first found himself thrown as it were by chance, on a rough and savage land: an orphan, abandoned by the unknown power which had produced him.[23]

The description fits the Deistic paradigm exactly: a creature abandoned by his Creator. The description also fits the experience of Frankenstein’s creature exactly. The parallel between the two accounts is reinforced by the context in both Volney and Shelley. The story of creation in Frankenstein is the story of mankind’s creation—and it is a Deistic story.

Volney was writing from an Enlightenment perspective to defend the French Revolution. His account of creation is deliberately designed as a polemic against orthodox Christian teaching of any stripe. Deism was the “Religion of Reason,” fit for the philosophers of the Age of Reason.

It is deeply significant that Mary Shelley chose to model her creation story after a Deistic paradigm. The horror of the story is the horror of unbridled human reason let loose in the world.

Endnotes

[1] Milton, John, Paradise Lost, book X, lines 743–45.

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, J. Paul Hunter, ed., Norton Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 1996), 32.

[3] Ibid., 171–72.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Ibid., 31–32.

[6] Ibid., 109–10.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Ibid., 27.

[9] Ibid., 42, emphasis added.

[10] Ibid., 30.

[11] Ibid., 30.

[12] Ibid., 32.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Butler, Marilyn, “Frankenstein and Radical Science,” in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, J. Paul Hunter, ed., Norton Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 1996), 304.

[15] Ibid., 306.

[16] Ibid., 307.

[17] Shelley, Frankenstein, 34–38.

[18] For example, Frankenstein says of the glacier of Montanvert: “It had then filled me with a sublime ecstacy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy.” Shelley, Frankenstein, 64.

[19] Shelley, Frankenstein, 87.

[20] Ibid., 114.

[21] For a fuller discussion of the creature’s education and its implications, see the author’s “The Education of Monster,” Ordained Servant 21, June-July 2012, https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=314.

[22] Butler, “Frankenstein and Radical Science,” in Shelley, Frankenstein 309.

[23] Constantin F. Volney, The Ruins, or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires: and The Law of Nature (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1991), 22.

James Gidley is a ruling elder in Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He serves as a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the department of engineering and computer science. He is also a member of the Committee on Christian Education and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant Online, December 2018.

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