Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

Bors Karloff as Frankenstein in the 1935 film. (image via WikiCommons)

CHICAGO — There’s an archetypal monster in your mind, and his name is Frankenstein. In a lecture presented this past Saturday, November 9, at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Heather Keenleyside discussed this notorious monster in relation to this year’s theme “Animal: What Makes Us Human?” Frankenstein, an example of “creation-gone-wrong” by mad fictional scientist Victor Frankenstein, both asks and answers this question. Now widely known through a wide range of cultural references —from multiple films to TV references and catchy monster-themed tunes — Frankenstein was born from the imagination of Mary Shelley.

“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs,” writes Mary Shelley, describing the moment in which Victor Frankenstein fully identifies his creation. He realizes that this monster could ruin both his life and the lives of many more people. Shortly after this realization, the creator rushes out of the room. What to do now that this creature is alive and ready to do as it pleases?

In her lecture, Keenleyside connects the idea of monstrosity to looking and being looked at, which she links to empirical methods of knowing the world. At the time of this book’s first publication in 1818, a period when the Enlightenment and Romanticism were questioning the relationship of science and religion, Shelley’s Frankenstein challenged notions of humanness. According to the beliefs of the period, the monster is one that has no rational soul, whereas the human being is nothing more than an animal of a certain form.

Dr. Frankenstein and his creature. Movieland Wax Museum in Niagara Falls, Canada. (image via Flickr user Diego3336)

In the context of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, the monster as seen through the lens of the Enlightenment is quietly positioned outside of both categories of human and animal. Not a beast nor a human being according to scientist Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1735), Frankenstein today is lumped in with creatures from the black lagoon and Carrie as a defining character of the horror film genre. During the period, the idea of a monster was disruptive to all categories, and to empirical knowledge — it simply did not fit into efforts by scientists to classify the world. Considering Frankenstein as an Enlightenment monster also suggests that the visual or empirical, as Keenleyside explains, provides a will to order, and a way to classify existence. A monster, she reminds audiences, is always an object to be looked at. In the case of Shelley’s monster, its eyes, according to the book, are opaque — not transparent like a human’s — thus causing a relationship between the outside and what is presented within. Yet we as the reader or viewer of Frankenstein are also given a peek inside the mind of the monster — into its own subjectivity and realization of itself as neither human nor animal.

Shelley writes in Chapter 12 of Frankenstein:

“At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.”

We are allowed a peek into the trauma that the monster is experiencing, bringing a human-like quality to his likeness. He continually asks who he was before, and what he was.

Keenleyside went on to explain the way that Shelley thematizes opposition between seeing bodies and feeling or hearing words. The text becomes an abstract image of pigment, and an oddly relatable one at that. Shelley’s worries over Enlightenment ideals, and the marriage of Enlightenment philosophy and Romantic poetry in her text, ultimately bring us back to the main question that Frankenstein asks: Is Frankenstein the creature or the creator? Are they doubles of each other? Frankenstein oscillates between being a God-like and an Adam-like or Satan-like figure — maybe all three at once. But then who, or what, is the monster, and who is the mirror reflecting him back to the reader and viewer?

Francisco de Goya, “The Sleeper of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” (1796-97). (image via

Before she concluded, Keenleyside discussed one of the most famous images of the period, Goya’s “El sueño de la razón produce monstrous” [The Sleeper of Reason Brings Forth Monsters] (1796–97), in which a man, slumped over napping, is surrounded by eight ominous owls, a lynx that seems to be able to see through the dark, and a shadowy black cat. In this image, Goya captures the growing anxiety surrounding the Enlightenment and its goal to quantify all human knowledge. One needs to be vigilant that reason, he seems to say, continue to battle the inhuman world within us.

A few decades later, Frankenstein would continue to probe the shortcomings of the Enlightenment, fashioning a hideous face to our monstrous imagination that springs from a human creator rather than an outside force of nature. The implication both in Goya’s work and Shelley’s novel is that the Enlightenment’s fixation of the outside world was incomplete, cloaking the darkness deep inside. It would take another century before people finally began to understand the irrational aspects of the human consciousness through the lens of psychology, but during that murky time period before Freud quantified monsters many fantastical creatures continued to roam the unchartered interior regions of humanity. People seemed unwilling to accept that monsters were more familiar than they wanted to believe.

“Frankeinstein” took place on Saturday, November 9 from 3–4pm at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater (77 W Washington) as part of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival (October 13 & 20; November 1–10).

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...