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The Making of Frankenstein's Monster: Post-Golem, Pre-Robot

Norma Rowen

In State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film, ed. Nicholas Ruddick (Westport: Greenwood, 1992), pp. 169-77

But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses. . . . I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? (Shelley 121)
Thus in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) the monster expatiates upon his loneliness, upon his irremediable ontological singleness. If, however, he had had creation stories other than Milton's Paradise Lost available to him, he might have discovered that he was not as alone as he thought, that he did after all have a kind of peer group. If he had read stories of the making of the golem, for instance, then appearing in German literature, or found in his maker's pocket notes on how to engender a homunculus, he would have realized that in fact he belonged to an ancient and acknowledged species: the man-made or artificial man. He would have seen that, far from being unique, he was only the latest among a whole series of embodiments of one of man's oldest dreams -- that of making a creature of his own.

If the monster was unaware of his interesting ancestry, his creator's creator, however, clearly was not. All three figures mentioned in the novel by Mary Shelley as providing Frankenstein with his seminal reading were renowned for their interest in artificial creation. Albertus Magnus was said to have made a housekeeper out of brass; Cornelius Agrippa spent many hours trying to breed life out of putrefying matter; and Paracelsus wrote the definitive recipe for creating a man through alchemy.1 In having her hero come to the making of his creature through an obsession with the works of these earlier would-be creators, Mary Shelley is clearly indicating that in spite of his new techniques, Victor Frankenstein is part of an old tradition.

{170} To examine Frankenstein and his creature against the background of this tradition, therefore, would be potentially to fill out one of the novel's most relevant dimensions, and a number of critics have done some work in this area. Radu Florescu, for example, in his In Search of Frankenstein (1975), traces the history of the earlier legends (213-34); and Samuel Holmes Vasbinder also explores them in his study of the role of the old and new science in his book Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1984). Nobody as yet, however, has focussed really detailed critical attention on Frankenstein's actual method of creation itself and tried to explain how it differs from, and how it resembles, those that preceded it. Such a study throws an interesting new light on both creature and creator, indicating more clearly Frankenstein's relationship to the methods of the past and allowing us to understand more fully his monster's predicament, and also perhaps that of the age he embodied.

At the time that Mary Shelley wrote her novel, stories and legends, some of them becoming fact in her own day, presented her with three main models of artificial creation. Perhaps the most ancient of these was that involved in the making of the golem, the child of the early Jewish mystics. He was fashioned out of a mixture of earth and magic. Many instructions for his creation exist in ancient Cabalistic writings, but the fullest can be found in Chayim Bloch's The Golem (1919). This is a modern work, but one that clearly uses ancient sources. In it the process begins at midnight on the banks of the Moldau River where the mud is soft:

They formed out of clay the figure of a person, three ells in length, and with all members. And the Golem lay before them with his face turned toward heaven. . . .
It lay there like a deadbody, without any movement.
Then, Rabbi Loew bade the Kohen walk seven times round the clay body, from right to left. . . .
When this was done, the clay body became red, like fire.
Then Rabbi Loew bade the Levite walk the same number of times, from left to right. . . . The fire-redness was extinguished, and water flowed through the clay body; hair sprouted on its head, and nails appeared on the fingers and toes.
Then Rabbi Loew . . . placed in its mouth a piece of parchment inscribed with the Schem (the name of God); and, bowing to the East and the West, the South and the North, all three recited together: "And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis ii, 7).
The Golem opened his eyes and looked, astonished, about him. (67-68)
Here we have presented the essential elements involved in golem making. After having been fashioned from basic clay and worked on by the other elements, the golem is brought to life by an injection of divine power stored in the letters of God's holy name, attracted by the skill of human intermediaries. We may note some salient characteristics of the method. First it is unequivocally dualistic. The life of the creature does not actually reside in the forming substance but is injected from another and extraneous source, in this case divine. {171} Second, we may note, as Robert Plank has pointed out, that appropriately to the spiritual culture involved, it is the attraction and injection of this spirit that takes the work, rather than the quick shaping of the body (15). Third, it is clear that in spite of its dualistic nature and emphasis on the spiritual, this method has a strong organic element. The material from which the figure is shaped is earth, the mother of all material form, and the creature, in part at least, grows from the earth in the manner of a seed. Finally, we may note another crucial feature: the model upon which this enterprise is patterned is obviously God's original creation of man in Genesis. As God created Adam by breathing life into the dust, so Adam's progeny now create the golem.

We can get an idea of the second type of creational model available to Mary Shelley by looking at the homunculus or test-tube man. Although he too had ancient origins, he became largely the dream child of the alchemists, who throughout the Middle Ages sought formulae for creating him at the same time as they pursued the philosopher's stone. Their methods were recondite and extremely elaborate, involving a mixture of magic and complicated distillation procedures. The most notable of the accounts of such processes date not from The Middle Ages, however, but from the Renaissance, when the age of science was beginning and the medieval atmosphere of mystery and magic was fading. The most famous of these recipes, that of Paracelsus in the Philosophia Sagax (1536), reflects this shift in sensibility:

If the sperm, enclosed in a hermetically-sealed glass, is buried in horse manure for about forty days and properly "magnetized," it begins to live and to move. After such a time it bears the form and resemblance of a human being, but it will be transparent and without a corpus. If it is now artificially fed with the arcanum sanguinis hominis until it is about forty weeks old, and if allowed to remain during that time in the horse manure, in a continually even temperature, it will grow into a human child, with all its members developed like any other child, such as may have been born of a woman, only it will be much smaller. We call such a being a homunculus, and he may be raised and educated like any other child, until he grows older and obtains reason and intellect, and is able to take care of himself. (Pachter 278)
In this account we are struck by the rational and scientific air projected. In spite of the lurking vestiges of magic (in the biblical numbers and the mysterious arcanum of blood), there is a matter-of-fact quality present, as though this enterprise might be accomplished with relative ease by anyone able to follow instructions correctly. The final sentence, which suggests that the creature produced will not be startingly different from normally conceived children, helps further reduce any sense of the marvelous.

In other ways, too, the contrast with the making of the golem is striking. Most notably, organicism has become the predominant element in the process. The golem was created from the earth; the homunculus emerges from the human seed itself, nourished by fertilizer and blood. Moreover, his creation is {172} developmental or evolutionary. Unlike the golem, who is born fully formed, the homunculus has to grow into his final form like all creatures of nature. As might be expected, along with this emphasis on organicism is a marked de-emphasis on any suggestion of dualism. In spite of the references to "magnetism" and the magic numbers, the life of this creature is not implanted from an extraneous source but is already inherent in the original generating matter. The maker's manipulations merely stimulate it into growth. In fact, as the above summary suggests, the creational model has now shifted. What is being imitated here is not God's divine creation of Adam from the dust, but the normal human processes of generation.

Paracelsus's homunculus, then, can be said to be the child of an age of dawning science, but the child of the very much more advanced science of Mary Shelley's own day was different again. Shelley could have encountered a number of these children in various exhibition halls during the years before Frankenstein was written for it was at the end of the eighteenth century that technologists had first started to produce actual automata or machine men. Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman give us some idea of their range and scope:

Droz père (1721-1790) made an elegantly dressed boy doll, "The Young Writer," that sat at a desk, dipped his pen into the inkwell, and wrote out a full page of legible script which he then signed before returning to a position of rest. . . . Droz fils (1752-1791) built two mechanical dolls -- one that played the spinet and another that could draw realistic likenesses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. (22-24)
The automaton had had a life in legend going back to the ancient world. In these legends, the automaton's life was often presented as being the result of black magic, and it is hardly surprising that when spectators first viewed these mechanical creatures they experienced frissons of awe and anxiety. But there was no magic, black or otherwise, in these latest products of science. On the contrary, they were totally material, with what "life" they evinced residing entirely in the machinery of which they were made and being generally of a limited kind. Here we see a link with the homunculus. As with him, the method by which they were created contains no element of dualism. In other crucial respects, however, they offer a striking contrast to both the homunculus and the golem. For in them has been banished, along with magic, any hint of organicism. Born at last into the world of fact, artificial man has become entirely synthetic. He is not only made of artificial parts but also constructed by means of an assemblage of parts. Like the golem, he emerges in complete form from his maker's hands; unlike the golem he is not carved in one piece but is made out of bits.

That the automaton was assembled and that he was made of a substance that was obviously not flesh creates a major difference between him and his two siblings. For his evident artificiality meant that he could never be taken for a human being. Rather, he was always clearly nothing more than an imitation of {173} the human, a kind of secondary or parallel creation whose likeness to humanity was evident but who raised no ideas or expectations that he possessed any real human life. The golem, on the other hand, could pass quite easily for human and frequently did, taking on the role in legend of his master's slightly buffoon-like servant. The homunculus, although he was sometimes described as growing up to be larger or smaller than ordinary children, was in other ways, as Paracelsus's recipe implies, indistinguishable from his human peers.

Here we have before us three essential models of artificial creation, and a comparison of them reveals some interesting trends. Perhaps the most interesting is the fact that as the models become more scientific, their aims become more limited. Thus, as was pointed out, the creator of the homunculus did not seek to implant life but to stimulate a life source that was already there. The assemblers of the automaton, in their turn, produced only a secondary creation whose life was extremely limited. Only the makers of the golem, with their imaginations rooted in the world of magic, sought to create life where none was before and mimic God by producing a new human being. And yet golem literature reveals that their makers too were subject to restraints. The chief of these is implicit in the Hebrew word golem itself. It means "an unformed mass," clearly suggesting that the enterprise itself had built-in limitations. Men might succeed in creating a human being after the manner of God's creation of Adam, but their creation would be forever unfinished and imperfect, resulting in only a draft of a man.2 Another limitation involved the nature of the golem makers themselves. For not all men were potential creators, only those of great learning and great piety. All the figures featured in the enterprise in Bloch's account are rabbis and priests, men whose nature has been refined through long spiritual discipline. It was only to such people that God's power would make itself available. The spiritual and magical world of the golem makers, then, allowed men's aspirations to soar in a way that was not so possible for the later scientists working in the world of matter and fact. But the presence of a God, the ultimate source of magical and spiritual power, itself imposed a check on these aspirations.

Another significant trend that emerges from a comparison of these figures is a movement towards a concentration of patriarchal power. All three of the models are examples of paternal propagation, that is of propagation that derives mainly or solely from the male.3 In the first two, however, the female element is still vestigially present. In the golem's case, the earth from which the creature is made is surely a kind of female element, being instinct with its own life, and making its own contribution to animating the figure formed from it. Thus the touch of water and heat stimulate it to grow, and only the breath of spirit is needed to bring it to full life. In the making of the homunculus, the female is present in the sealed glass (sometimes described as a gourd glass), which represents the womb, as well as in the blood. It is these agents that warm and nourish the male seed into development. These traces of a female partner are {174} totally absent, though, from the most scientifically advanced model of artificial creation, the automaton. Here there is only one creating agent, the male technologist. In contrast to the golem and homunculus there is no hint of life in the physical matter from which the creature is formed. Rather, he is made up of materials that are entirely inert and inanimate, totally subject to the creator's manipulations. With the advance of science, the power of creation has been gathered into the hands of a single male maker.

When we view the making of Frankenstein's monster against the backdrop of the traditions just outlined, some significant points immediately emerge. Chief of these is the choice of models used. In his article "A Monster for All Seasons" (1982), Brian Aldiss claims that Frankenstein, in creating his creature, "rejects alchemy and magic" and "throws away dusty old authorities" (15). This point is also made by Vasbinder, who emphasizes Frankenstein's use of scientific processes that are "exact [and] repeatable" (47) throughout the creation. In a sense, of course, these statements are obviously true. Frankenstein's procedures are clearly those of the new science. Thus the monster's physical form is a careful and exact piecing together of human parts, with the whole then animated by an element that is also entirely natural, probably one related to electricity.4 During this process, then, there is no recourse to any power outside nature itself. God and any form of magic have been entirely banished from the undertaking.

Such are Frankenstein's methods. When, however, we turn to a consideration of his aims, we see that he has perhaps not rejected the world of alchemy and magic as thoroughly as Aldiss and Vasbinder suggest. In his readings of Agrippa and company, Frankenstein has become fascinated by the search for the elixir of life and the ideas of the "glory [that] would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death" (Shelley 40). Later, when he encounters M. Waldman, a science professor at Ingolstadt, he is told that such ambitions are preposterous and out of tune with the methods and aims of the new science. "The ancient teachers of this science," Waldman says emphatically, "promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera" (47). Frankenstein eagerly embraces the new science, but nonetheless he continues to search for the elixir of life. This suggests that his aspirations are still under the influence of the world of alchemy and magic that he has supposedly left behind, and that the sense of man's capacity to perform marvels and miracles could he but tap into the right power still informs his ambitions.

That such is Frankenstein's cast of mind is surely borne out when we look at his chief creational model. For the procedure he prefers to follow is not that which produced the homunculus or the automaton, the children of early and late science, but that which produced the golem, the child of magic and supernatural power. For the most striking thing about his creation of the monster is its very sharp dualism. The body, fully formed from its maker's hands, is struck into {175} sudden life by the injection of a power from a separate and still quite mysterious source. That this source has its roots in nature in no way alters the fact that the description of the moment of animation suggests something that is the very opposite of natural -- a magical and amazing occurrence:

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 burnt 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. (57)
Vasbinder, in his chapter on the new science, comments on the way that Newtonian monism came to replace the dualism of Agrippa and the Middle Ages (69). The animation of Frankenstein's monster makes us almost feel as if we were back in the earlier dualistic world of matter and spirit. The life source that is used, moreover, derived from the lightning bolt that shoots down from heaven, intensifies our sense of the animation as something semidivine. Indeed, as with the golem, it is clearly the divine model of creation that is being animated here. Frankenstein, however, like the makers of the golem, is not God but a mortal man. Unlike the makers of the golem, however, he has only a natural not a divine force at his command, and it is therefore not surprising that ultimately the animation remains incomplete.

Part of the reason for this incomplete animation resides, of course, in the body of the creature, and if we look closely at the methods of construction used, an interesting contradiction emerges. For if in its overall structure, Frankenstein's method resembles that of the magician priests who made the golem, in his approach to making his creature's physical form Frankenstein remains almost entirely the scientist. True, like the golem makers he makes the body out of earth, perhaps because like them he sees it as God's original modeling clay. But the ideals and intentions that Frankenstein brings to his creation ensure that he forms his creature in quite a different way and of quite another earth. The makers of the golem, living in a God-dominated universe, never presumed to make anything more than a rough draft of a man. Frankenstein, living in the Age of Reason when there is no power higher than man, adds to the dreams of the magician the hubris of his age, in his aim to make a creature who will be so much an improvement on the original model that he will make man himself look like the rough draft. Frankenstein's immensely inflated vision is combined with his scientist's precise knowledge of the human body and its organs, and a desire to reproduce them in a perfect mimesis.

It is this search for an exact and ideal mimesis that inevitably, given that Frankenstein is modeling his creature out of an earth-substance, leads to his recourse to the prefabricated parts that can only be found among the dead. In this respect the monster differs most significantly from the golem. For the warm and fertile mud of the Moldau from which the golem was formed is instinct with {176} vitality. What characterizes the material Frankenstein hunts up from "the unhallowed damps of the grave," "charnel-houses," and "the slaughter-house" (Shelley 54-55), however, is its lifelessness, its essential quality as used-up, worn-out stuff, the detritus of mortality. There is no sense here of any possibility of vitality or reciprocal creativity. This earth could not seem less organic. Frankenstein alone is the creative agent.

This inorganic quality also informs the way that Frankenstein puts his creature together. For as the monster is created out of bits and pieces, he must be constructed synthetically, by a process of assembly. In spite of using earth and the dualistic methods of the golem makers, Frankenstein produces a kind of machine-man. Yet the monster's roots in earlier models of creation prevent him from being a successful automaton. For the automaton is made of artificial substances and raises no expectations that he is human. Frankenstein's monster, assembled out of bits of flesh, becomes not a machine but something human that has been horribly distorted -- an image out of nightmare.

After the account of the creation of the monster with its allusions to death and mechanism, we sense the terrible difficulty that will be involved in bringing it to life. What we confront here are the barriers of a much more deadly dualism than any we have encountered before. The dualism of the golem's creation is one of body and spirit, of two separate principles that nonetheless belong together and can flow into each other. The dualism in the making of the monster is that created by the Age of Reason -- a Cartesian split between mind and matter that estranges them so far from each other that they are unable even to negotiate across the gulf. We are not therefore surprised when the monster responds with convulsions to the sudden shock of the electric force, nor by the fact that the animation remains incomplete.

Is Frankenstein then still mainly a dealer in alchemy and magic, or an unswerving propagator of the methods of the new science? The answer surely is that he is an awkward and contradictory mixture of the two. In his attempts to create he conflates the more grandiose dreams of the earlier age with the matter-bound scientific methods of the later one, with disastrous consequences. Magic inflates science, and science impedes magic, and the result is a terrible miscreation, a machine-man made of vulnerable flesh, a golem estranged from all animating spirit, a homunculus bred not from the womb but from the grave.

Perhaps, then, Frankenstein's creature is after all alone. For of all the artificial creations that have paraded through the human imagination, the assorted crowds of golems, homunculi, robots, and cyborgs, Frankenstein's creation is the only one whose name, personal and generic, is monster. We may now see more clearly where the roots of his monstrousness lie. For, more than any other form of artificial creature, the monster is the product of an age of breakdown and traumatic transition, an age in which the old idea of God was fading and the sense of the reality of spirit was evaporating before the increasingly solid incursions of matter. It is these changes that the monster {177} embodies, and his sufferings are an expression of the ambivalence and pain with which humanity confronted them.


1. All three of these figures are discussed by Florescu (225-33); interestingly, he points out that they figure too in Godwin's Lives of the Necromancers (1834).

2. These and other details about the golem and his makers can be found in Scholem 158-204.

3. See also Mellor 40-44.

4. The electrical connection is clearer in the introduction to the 1831 edition, which hows a marked interest in Galvanism (Shelley 9). But the 1818 edition's lightning bolt and the account of Frankenstein's father drawing electricity from the clouds with a kite in the manner of Benjamin Franklin (41, 237) suggest that from the beginning Shelley had some kind of electrical energy in mind as the life-giving agent.