Dvar Torah – On the 200th Anniversary of Frankenstein
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 January 2018
A couple of hundred years ago this week, the world, for the very first time, heard the name Frankenstein.
There had been stories of created beasts before – the story of the golem of Prague, for example – but, on its publication in January 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” was an instant hit, and the very name of the inventor (not, of course, of the monster) entered the English language.
Frankenstein is often presented as a horror story, but is actually much more than that, an exploration of ideas, written from the perspectives of the main protagonists. It raises issues of power, science, human nature, creation.
According to Shelley’s husband, Percy, the main theme of the book is about the origin of evil in humans:
“The crimes and malevolence of the single Being, tho’ indeed withering and tremendous, [are not] the offspring of any unaccountable propensity to evil… In this the direct moral of the book consists … Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked.” We are not, the book suggests, inherently evil, but can become so through how we are treated.
In imagining a story of creation as an act of power in which the creator then rejects his creation, Shelley gives us a model of what this ill-treatment can look like. She warns us what it is to make anyone feel unwanted, unimportant, rejected. “I am thy creature”, the monster declares to his creator in one, earthbreaking scene, “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”
The experience of Frankenstein’s monster emphasises the extraordinary power of the biblical creation metaphor.
Frankenstein’s monster is created as an act of whim, as an act of power, and then rejected. In the Genesis narratives, humanity is created purposefully, with dignity and value, and loved. We are created b’tzelem Elohim in the image of God.
The wickedness of Shelley’s monster stems from his rejection, his inability to see value in himself. Frankenstein’s monster knows himself to be unloved. By contrast, as Akiva put it in Pirkei Avot:
“Human beings are loved, for we are created in the image of God; a still greater love is that it was made known to us that we were created in the image of God”
In the year ahead may we always find in ourselves the ability to feel like Adam – never to be rejected, never to see ourselves as driven out or as fallen.
And just as we see the value in ourselves, may we always remember to see it in others, too – lest we, like Frankenstein, create monsters.