‘Frankenstein’s monster’: meaning and origin

With reference to Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818), by the British novelist Mary Shelley (née Godwin – 1797-1851), in which Victor Frankenstein constructs a human monster and endows it with life, the expression Frankenstein’s monster designates a creation over which the creator loses control, eventually being destroyed by it. And, because the creator’s name is commonly misused for the creature, Frankenstein too is used to designate a creation over which the creator loses control.

The earliest occurrences of the expression Frankenstein’s monster that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From an unsigned correspondence from Paris, France, dated Wednesday 8th May 1822, published in The Morning Chronicle (London, England) of Friday 17th May 1822—Porte designates the government of the Ottoman Empire—Alexander I (1777-1825) was the Tsar of Russia from 1801 to 1825:

It is believed here, that Russia has submitted to an understanding with England, Austria, and France, that in the event of a war with the Porte, those three Powers should be the arbiters of the conduct of Russia—specifying the lengths to which she ought to go, and marking the bounds of her southern advances. This all sounds well; but if that Northern Colossus, like Frankenstein’s monster, once begins its strides, will the man that sets it in motion be able to direct its steps? Is it to be expected that veneration for the Holy Alliance will restrain the ambition which propels the movements of the entire Russian people? Will Alexander have the moderation, or the ability to stop in his mid career; or at what point may the nations say “thus far shalt thou go, and no further?”

2-: From Ode to the Great Unknown, in Odes and Addresses to Great People (London: Printed for Baldwin, Cradock, & Joy, 1825), by the British authors Thomas Hood (1799-1845) and John Hamilton Reynolds (1794-1852):

Thou,—whom the second-sighted never saw,
The Master Fiction of fictitious history!
Chief Nong tong paw!
No mister in the world—and yet all mystery!
The “tricksy spirit” of a Scotch Cock Lane—
A novel Junius puzzling the world’s brain—
A man of magic—yet no talisman!
A man of clair obscure—not him o’ the moon!
A star—at noon.
A non-descriptus in a caravan,
A private—of no corps—a northern light
In a dark lantern,—Bogie in a crape—
A figure—but no shape;
A vizor—and no knight;
The real abstract hero of the age;
The staple Stranger of the stage;
A Some One made in every man’s presumption,
Frankenstein’s monster—but instinct with gumption;
Another strange state captive in the north,
Constable-guarded in an iron mask—
Still let me ask,
Hast thou no silver platter,
No door-plate, or no card—or some such matter,
To scrawl a name upon, and then cast forth?

3-: From The Confessions of a Cantab, published in The Barbadian (Bridgetown, Barbados) of Tuesday 1st February 1825—a shortened form of Cantabrigian, the noun Cantab designates a member of the University of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England—the anonymous author concludes as follows “a faithful sketch of the life aud [sic] pursuits of a reading man at Cambridge”:

There is yet another class of reading men, who never look into a classical book—such are mathematicians, who refuse to believe any thing that does not admit of a mathematical proof. They labour, perhaps, more than the classical humdrums above mentioned, and these two divisions of literary Frankenstein-monsters, having pursued the same dull routine for three years, become at last warnglers [sic], or ffrst-class-men [sic], and are then turned loose into civilized society, the merest automatons, and the most barbarous savages, that ever wore breeches and stood upon two legs.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the name Frankenstein used in the sense of a creation over which the creator loses control are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Reformed Parliament and the King’s Speech, published in The Dublin University Magazine (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of March 1833:

We may call the Reform Bill Ichabod, for its glory hath departed—it is no longer a thing for present boast and future promise—it has become the Frankenstein of the Whig administration, and they now regard with fear and abhorrence the monster of their own creation.

Note: Ichabod is used as an exclamation of regret, in allusion to the First Book of Samuel, 4:21, in which Eli’s daughter-in-law names her son Ichabod because of the loss of the Ark of God, and because of the deaths of her father-in-law and of her husband—this is the First Book of Samuel, 4:21, in the King James Bible (1611):

And she named the childe Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel, (because the Arke of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.)

2-: From an entry, written during a voyage to Sicily, and dated Thursday 1st November 1838, in the diary of the British statesman William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)—as published in The Gladstone Diaries. Volume II. 1833–1839. Edited by M. R. D. Foot (London: Oxford University Press, 1968)—however, here, the name Frankenstein seems to designate a robot-like creature:

It is rather sad to leave one’s mule after a service of near four hundred miles, without being able to like him. But the acquaintance which it gives with this race is to us one of the characteristic features of Sicilian travelling. They seem to have no sense of fatigue, of kindness, or of emulation: a light or a heavy load, a long or a short distance, a good or a bad road, provided only the pace be not rapid, are all alike without the slightest effect upon the physical composure of the mule. The wiry beast works in his own way and in no other, resenting punishment but hardly otherwise affected by it, and still less accessible by any other means of influence. Michael calls his mules ‘Porco’! when they stumble. But they really seem like Frankensteins of the animal creation. Sympathy however they have: and with a faint yet wild and unnatural neighing they will sometimes recognise relationship.

3-: From the review of The State in its Relations with the Church (London: John Murray, 1839), by William Ewart Gladstone—unsigned review published in The London Quarterly Review (London, England) of December 1839:

The whole question of our colonial policy in matters of religion is full of anxious and melancholy reflections; and Mr. Gladstone’s information is not calculated to place their prospects or our own responsibilities in a more favourable light.—We have emptied the sewers of our population on two vast continents. Two gigantic empires—the Frankensteins of our own creation, which will soon turn upon the author of their being—are shooting up under our eyes, and developing, even in their infancy, a maturity of crime, and a calculating selfishness, which makes even crime more formidable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.