Five hundred–odd years ago, a period of severe climate change settled over the Northern Hemisphere, turning what was formerly mild not hot, as we worry about today, but instead bone-chillingly cold. In their fear and pain, people of the region responded as people do, with spasms of religious intolerance, witch-hunting, and warfare. Peter Breughel recorded the onset of that fierce cold snap with his paintings of frozen rivers and swirling armies of half-starved, half-mad villagers, and he was not exaggerating by much: With the return of the Little Age Ice, as scholars would come to call it, came extreme storms, drought, famine and civil war, and the desperate search for someone to blame.
The outside, the Other, was nowhere better evoked than in a book that was composed during the coldest year of that long, cold era, 1816, “the year without a summer.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein records the creation of a monster that feared only fire and warmth and that died, in the end, in Arctic ice.
That monster was the deeply unfortunate creation of the Promethean doctor Victor Frankenstein. Though cobbled together in a laboratory, it had a soul. Moreover, it had a brain and, with it, literary leanings; the monster read Shelley’s contemporary Goethe as well as the ancient Greeks, and it—he, we now should say—seems to have had Milton’s Paradise Lost in mind when he addressed his creator high in the Swiss Alps: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
Alas, happiness is not to be the creature’s fate. Mary Shelley saw the dark side of the Enlightenment, the existential discomfort that comes from realizing that we are alone in our primate primacy; as the old Whole Earth slogan put it, “We are as gods and might as well get used to it,” but when she published Frankenstein in the warming year of 1818, Shelley foresaw that human science and technology were likely to produce a world of monsters and monstrous people, very much as our dystopian writers have it today in books like Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, Julianna Baggott’s Burn, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
So why does the Frankenstein monster of our imagination speak in grunts and shrieks? When James Whale came to direct the movie in 1931, he cast the poetic, supremely literate Boris Karloff in the place of the studio’s first choice, Bela Lugosi, who then could not speak enough English to protest being driven from joy. A rudimentary script was in place, and Karloff was not given room to say much, let alone voice his Miltonian sorrow at having been cast out of the garden—reason enough to toss an innocent child into the nearest lake, just the thing a monster, bad robot, ET, or swamp creature might be expected to do.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.