Victor Frankenstein is the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein. (Some spoilers may follow.) Most people know at least the gist of the story: Frankenstein becomes obsessed with his studies of life and death, stitches together a body from parts of countless other, human bodies, and manages to bring that body to life. This isn’t just a zombie, however — a mindless body running on some kind of auto-pilot. This creature’s mind is functional, albeit infantile in some ways.
Frankenstein, terrified at the realization of what he had just done and by the imposing creature before him, flees, abandoning his creation. The reader sees this choice ripple throughout the entire story as Shelley reveals the being’s years-long existential crisis and Frankenstein’s fear and shame. Their lives are consumed by one another, and those around them become collateral damage as their bitterness and hatred grow into obsessions.
Frankenstein and God
Frankenstein’s success at bringing the creature to life provides the obvious comparison between him and God. Frankenstein is to the creature as God is to creation. Shelley reinforces this comparison through the creature’s own claim that he ought to be Frankenstein’s “Adam,” alluding to the human created in Genesis, often called Adam. The creature’s existential struggle emphasizes an inherent connection between them, which is why the creature becomes so fixated on Frankenstein; of all the people in the world, Frankenstein is the one who should have created a space of belonging for the creature. That realization is what motivates the creature to seek out Frankenstein.
People have written much more in-depth and exhaustive papers and books examining these things, and I’m no literary scholar. I’m only going to briefly consider some points that reflect a lot of what I was taught by Christian communities concerning God.
- Frankenstein abandons the creature. God abandons creation.
- Frankenstein presents himself as pure and guiltless. God presents Godself as pure and guiltless.
- Frankenstein justifies/rationalizes his aggressive, “corrective” action against the creature. God justifies/rationalizes God’s aggressive, “corrective” action against humanity.
- Frankenstein condescends to the creature. God condescends to humanity.
- Frankenstein refuses to enter into a meaningful relationship with the creature. God refuses to enter into a meaningful relationship with humanity.
While these don’t reflect my own, current conception of God, they do represent things that are pervasive in the traditions in which I was raised. I want to reflect on what jumped out at me as I read this story and where I see the connections. Frankenstein exemplifies a God that many people hate and one I have since rejected.
Frankenstein abandons his creation immediately after succeeding in bringing him to life. It seems that the completion of his work broke his blind obsessiveness, and he realized how truly “monstrous” the creature was. This is accentuated later as Frankenstein attempts to piece together a companion for the creature. He finally accepts that very idea: he was able to ignore the grotesque nature of the work because he was so obsessed with the goal. Now that his obsession has passed (and given way to fear and disgust), he struggles to continue in his creative work.
In traditions where “the fall” has lead to an inherently sinful nature, it seems common to find a God who feels this same way about humanity. The work that was “very good” was later revealed to be “evil all the time,” and God became disgusted by the creature God created. That disgust implies an inherent separation (distancing) from humanity.
This is still an idea that’s taught in many Christian circles, that God is distant from us because God is disgusted with us. That is, our inherent sinfulness is monstrous to God. The work of salvation through Jesus, then, is one of God mercifully overcoming our monstrousness. It’s merciful, because God is able to do what Frankenstein couldn’t: stomach the grotesque work of “loving” us long enough to “fix” us. But, unless a person accepts this gracious, merciful gift, they live functionally abandoned by their creator. Moreover, even God wasn’t disgusted, the “evil” of humanity is incompatible with God’s purity.
Pure and Guiltless Creator
Repeatedly in Frankenstein’s internal dialogue, he reminds himself of his victimhood. Everything that the creature is doing, everything that Frankenstein and others are suffering, and all of the fear and distress that Frankenstein is experiencing are all completely unjustified and thrust upon him by the cruelty of the monster. What has he done to deserve such cruelty and hatred from his own creation? Frankenstein, himself, is faultless and guiltless, and his motivations have always been pure.
Even after Frankenstein accepts the grotesque nature of his work, he still rationalizes his actions and demonizes those of the creature. He may have been obsessed, but he was obsessed with the secrets of life, which he believed would be revealed through his study of death. He was correct, and the creature is proof of that “rightness!” How is it his fault that the creature is insane and murderous?
Even as he resolves to be the solution to this problem, which may, at a glance, seem to be an acknowledgment of responsibility, the undercurrent of hubris runs deep. By continuing to perceive himself as guiltless, it’s revealed that he can’t truly take responsibility; responsibility accepts guilt. Rather, his commitment to the destruction of the creature is a thinly veiled disguise of his more terrifying realization: asking for help would require that Frankenstein reveal himself to the world.
Beginning with the murder of Frankenstein’s brother, he suspects the creature’s return, yet he’s willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent woman to save face. He rationalizes: I can’t prove it was the creature, and I have no proof of the creature’s existence. No one would believe me, anyway, so I have no recourse by which to save this woman’s life. Except that time and again, Frankenstein refuses to reveal himself or the creature to others, even as the murders continue, even to his closest friend, and even to his wife.
You want acceptance and belonging? I could give those to you — present you to the world and stand by you? No. The world would label you a monster and label me by association. Instead, I will pretend I am pure and you are evil, and I won’t risk that image for the sake of compassion or love or belonging or reconciliation.
Often, the same tradition that presents an abandoning God and sinful creation also presents a God too pure to be wrong and too guiltless to be blamed. Who are we to question God? Were we there at the laying of the foundations of the world? Is it God’s fault that humanity gave itself over to evil thoughts and desires or that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Surely, God is blameless in the actions of God’s creation. We are, after all, evil and monstrous and shameful by virtue of the fall.
More than that, like Frankenstein’s vow of destruction, isn’t it justifiable that a pure and blameless God should set Godself against humanity, to destroy that which is wicked and evil? Yet, this sort of theology, like Frankenstein’s rationalizing, is too often a thinly veiled disguise; it’s easier to justify and rationalize hatred and bigotry — it’s easier to throw off empathy and compassion — when we align ourselves with that which is pure and guiltless. We give ourselves divine justification by virtue of purity to snuff out that which is impure.
Aggressive, Corrective Action
Frankenstein resolves to do what’s “right.” He overcomes his fear through the power of hatred and anger. He will no longer abide the unjust presence of this monstrosity! And when his wife is murdered… Such righteous indignation against this manifestation of evil; Frankenstein becomes a force of justice, an avenging messenger. He heroically dedicates the remainder of his life to hunting down and destroying a murderer.
He was almost taken captive by compassion; he almost created a companion for the creature, but at the last moment, he was able to set his own selfish desire aside — his desire to be free of the creature — and do what was best for everyone: destroy the work he was doing. He refused to be part of bringing a second, potentially more monstrous and murderous creature into the world. Better to be plagued by this one monster than to unleash two monsters. Such sacrificial resolve…
Christians have similarly presented a “justifiably” aggressive God. God’s regret at flooding the earth, for example, wasn’t born of actual regret. Rather, it was a deep sadness at having to do what needed to be done. Any good creator would be sad at having to destroy one’s own creation, but God, out of sacrificial love for the world, resolved to do it anyway. Praise be to God.
Empathy and compassion are thus presented as obstacles to be overcome or redefined under the banner of “tough love.” Empathy is presented as sinful, because it interferes with the carrying out of the righteous will of God, which often demands the condemnation of, and corrective, aggressive action against, evil and wickedness (read: evil and wicked people).
Do you see how these things snowball into each other, compounding the separation between God and creation — God and humanity? What’s more, when we buy into this kind of God and then associate ourselves with that God, we become elitist in our perception of others, and we begin to condescend to those who are “other” and “outside.”
Frankenstein condescends toward his creation, because he buys his own propaganda — that he is guiltless and pure and this monster is completely at fault and impure. Frankenstein can’t be reasoned with or persuaded, because he always knows best. He is always right in his thinking and faultless in his actions. Even when he’s wrong, he’s wrong without guilt, because even his mistakes are more pure that the monster’s actions.
Similarly, a God who is distant, pure, and justified can condescend toward a humanity that is inherently sinful, impure, and wicked. It comes back to the question of “who are we to oppose God?” All the more when empathy and compassion are seen as obstacles; a God whose will must overcome empathy naturally condescends, because God must remain aloof and superior in purity and righteousness.
This perception of God promotes an elitist Christianity. If we are in Christ and Christ is in God, then we are in God and therefore purer and more righteous than those toward whom God condescends. We, too, then, may condescend to those who are, by God’s decree, inferior in righteousness and purity, and we need not worry about empathy or compassion for that which is impure and monstrous by default. More than that, because God’s (our) purity separates God (us) from wickedness and unrighteousness, no real relationship can exist between “them” and God (“us”).
The existential journey of Frankenstein’s creation leads to this conclusion: my desire for belonging can only truly be satisfied by my creator, Victor Frankenstein. Perhaps, the creature had thought, another family could love me the way they love each other. Perhaps there’s hope for belonging among those with whom I share no bonds — not blood, not culture, not experience. When that failed, the creature pleaded with Frankenstein, and for a moment, Frankenstein almost gave in. Alas, empathy was too weak to overcome “righteousness,” and Frankenstein was able to steel himself for the necessary sacrifice — for the sake of the world.
How could Frankenstein have a relationship with something so angry, so murderous, so evil? How could he trust something so twisted and lost? No. He was “wiser” than that; this creature could not be trusted, and all real relationships are built on trust. No true relationship can be had with something that’s wicked.
Similarly, the God of distant purity and righteousness can’t truly enter into relationships with that which is impure. The “saving grace” of Jesus, therefore, becomes a necessary mercy of God — that God would stoop down to purify the impure so that we could hope to have a relationship with God. Otherwise, God must refuse to be in relationship, because God can’t be in relationship with that which is so obviously and disgustingly other.
Victor Frankenstein: Hero?
This is, quite frankly, sickening to write. It turns my stomach, because I’ve lived with this theology. I’ve seen what it does. I don’t want to demonize Victor Frankenstein, even as a fictional character, but neither do I want to leave any room for the possibility that Frankenstein is in any way heroic. We may say that he is a hero in the literary sense — he is the protagonist of the story — but at best, he is an anti-hero in that he possesses no heroic qualities or attributes.
Frankenstein is not brave nor compassionate nor empathetic nor wise. He lacks moral fiber, is governed by hubris, and is as blind to himself as he is to his creation. He abandons instead of entering into solidarity. He demonizes instead of humanizes. He condescends instead of empowers. He gives weight to fear instead of hope and love. He desires to control instead of participate. He favors superficial purity over justice and equity.
Frankenstein is the God that people hate — the one that sits in Heaven and points the finger of condemnation at the world with impunity. He is the self-righteous, rationalizing, distant, elitist God who claims to be above reproach. I say this as a person who still claims the label of Christian: people are right to be angry with and to oppose such a God. Such a God is the idol of the powerful. Such a God is the tool of the oppressor.
As I said, it’s not my desire to demonize Frankenstein. I don’t want to cancel him. If he were a real person, I would want something more, something reconciliatory, but I also want to acknowledge the reality with which many people are dealing: there is a perception of God being perpetuated in Christianity that looks and feels a lot like the character of Victor Frankenstein, and it’s feeding a violent, rationalizing, elitist Christian culture that is demonizing the “other.” It needs to be called out. It needs to be stripped of its “heroic” facade and examined for what it is.