Before reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, I thought of the Frankenstein monster in purely physical terms. In the attached image, we see the modern archetypal image of Frankenstein’s creation that I have known since childhood, a green-skinned and large-browed giant, standing triumphant over an assortment of severed limbs. The features are not present in the text, yet they are so ingrained in our minds that a disproportionate doll caricature is easily identifiable. The appearance of a person can change much thought about him, and the gradual aesthetic transformation of Shelley’s monster to its modern day archetype reflects the gradual simplification of our relationship with the creature. Not many depictions of Frankenstein’s creation retain his distinctive features from the novel, such as smooth black hair and white teeth (pg 60)*. The man was ugly in some features, yet beautiful on others, suggesting a more fluid and interpretive character. Unlike the novel, the modern myth is obviously hideous and inhuman; the outlandish green skin is easily distinguishable unlike the sickly yellow of the text, and a pronounced brow suggests a lack of intelligence. When we look at this monster, instead of being conflicted, we know what to expect.

The pile of body parts reflects how the modern myth of Frankenstein does keep the artificial man’s propensity for violence, but changes the reason along with his appearance. In the novel, the creature has a distinct revenge motive that is eruditely spelled out to his creator (pg 93). Because Frankenstein’s creation has the capacity for complex thought and emotions, he bears responsibility for his own actions, giving his rebellion moral ambiguity. In contrast, the modern myth of the monster is of a dumb creature that is violent by nature, as represented by the random and haphazard collection of limbs he stands over. Jean-Paul Sartre’s metaphor of the paper knife suggests that, unlike a knife that has the built-in purpose for cutting, man has the ability to choose his purpose after existence. When the creature is presented as hideous and inhuman by nature, he loses the agency that allows the audience to relate with his emotions because the creature is unable to make his own decisions

The simplification of the creature’s dilemma and the audience’s empathy for the creature make for a more appealing icon, one that is simple and easy to grasp. Instead of knowing Frankenstein’s heir for the vengeful relationship and loneliness he felt or the murders that he performed, we know him simply for what he was. By just accepting that the artificial person was born with all of its deficiencies and no ability for moral choice, I assumed the role of Frankenstein when he judged his creation a monster on purely physical terms, leaving it alone to become a monster of a man.

* Corresponds to the Bedford/Saint Martin’s 2nd edition of Frankenstein is being used.