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Try to put all images of crackling Van de Graaff generators and lumbering, moaning, bolt necked monsters from your mind. Nearly 200 years of oversimplification and spoofs have completely overshadowed the original version of this tale, first published in 1818. So let's set the record straight. While still a student of natural philosophy Victor Frankenstein had an epiphany—although its precise nature is never revealed. Through studying death and decay he discovers “the cause of generation and life,” becoming himself “capable of bestowing animation on lifeless matter.” Although now this would probably first be demonstrated on nematodes, then drosophila, Frankenstein goes straight for the big one: creating a man. And note here that although the raw materials for the project were derived from “the dissecting room and the slaughter house”—this is about creation, not reanimation. To avoid fiddly surgery he builds the creature on a massive scale, some 8 feet (2.4 m) in height. Frankenstein is initially just like any expectant parent, boasting of the beautiful features selected for his creation. Yet at the very moment life is given, of birth, as it were—and the creature although massive is initially described like a baby, fixing its eyes on its father, grinning, and holding out its hand to him—Frankenstein rejects it. What he had so recently found beautiful he suddenly finds hideous. Appalled, he runs away, returning later to discover that the creature, which he now calls a monster, has disappeared.
After six months he encounters his creature again. It can now move across harsh terrain with superhuman speed and converse eloquently in French. Is Frankenstein proud of his offspring's achievements? Does he seek a reconciliation or forgiveness for his act of abandonment? Of course not. He treats it just as everyone else does, returning the gigantic creature's acts of kindness and requests for love with fear and loathing—a still relevant comment on the trials of many of those with disability and disfigurement in our own society. What then follows is an escalating cycle of pursuit and revenge on Frankenstein and his family by the creature he has disowned. For the real story of Frankenstein is not that of an experiment gone wrong. The creature works wonderfully well; he is a superman. It is not that of man being punished for encroaching on the territory of the gods, as the alternative title, The Modern Prometheus, suggests—although Frankenstein himself (who narrates much of the story) would claim that this was indeed the case. Instead it is about recognising that we are responsible for all our children, good and bad, biological, adopted, scientific, and medical.
Frankenstein's outright rejection of his creation, denying it even a name, twisted its basic goodness into hateful barbarity. This is something to think about when treatments go wrong and patients or relatives look to us for answers and support. Or when trainees are heading off the rails and need more intensive mentoring. Frankenstein teaches us that to get the best possible outcome from anything that has involved our creative input requires elements of responsible care, love, and nurturing. And if we do this we will not create monsters.
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
By Mary Shelley
First published 1818