“So, Mr. Frankenstein, you say you’re a doctor and that you have created life from dead tissue, by some mysterious means which you don’t support in any substantive way. Might we see your curriculum vitae?”
2018 marks 200 years since the publishing of “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley, and countless versions and adaptations ever since. In many of these, or references to the story, the monster is often called Frankenstein and the main character, Victor Frankenstein, is often referred to as “Dr. Frankenstein”. But after creating his creature, which in the novel he never named, Victor Frankenstein left his studies at Ingolstadt University and returned home to Geneva on the tragic news of his younger brother’s death.
His field of study at Ingolstadt was at first Natural Philosophy, an Enlightenment precursor to today’s natural sciences, but combining mathematics and chemistry with his own interests in the ancient alchemist notions of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, all of which he abandoned on the horror of his creation, missing his examinations to hurry home.
Victor Frankenstein was essentially a college dropout, so to call himself a doctor would have been fraudulent. He certainly never practiced medicine following the events at Ingolstadt. But he was perhaps distracted by other events. He came from a moneyed upper middle-class family, so presumably had no need to practice a trade. He did not establish any practice, nor teach at any institution. If he were to apply a doctorate, I’m not sure how his interview might go…
“So, Mr. Frankenstein, you say you have discovered the secrets to life and death where others have failed, but you claim your notes were stolen by a monster you had sewn together from dead bodies which you kept in your university dormitory apartment bedroom for two years? Perhaps it is a means of refrigeration you have discovered?”
Frankenstein might suggest at this point he’s working on it. He’s of course been thinking of other possible uses for electricity beyond bringing the dead back to life, but hasn’t had the time to develop his thoughts as he’s been preoccupied with some murders in his family.
The interview takes an incredulous turn at this point. “From your dissertation, you say this “demon” being you animated learned to read Plutarch and Goethe, in French, and discuss complex human cultural philosophy solely by observing a mountain farm family though the window of barn, sustaining himself by eating nuts and berries he gathered in the woods? And no-one but you spoke to this eight foot tall individual of horrific visage except one old blind man. And you didn’t finish your studies because this unseen horror murdered your little brother…and framed the crime on the housemaid?”
Frankenstein might apologetically have responded that he felt some personal responsibility in not stepping forward at the time, and telling the authorities they should be looking for an eight foot tall man who could run like a gazelle with well-proportioned arms and sallow watery yellow eyes. He might further explain that this man he had once thought beautiful and meticulously cared for and groomed for two years, turned on him from jealousy when he was rejected, blaming Victor for not loving him, and demanding he make a girlfriend for him who would understand him and love him for who he was, in spite of his flaws, and not the perfect being Victor had unrealistically envisioned when they started together.
Some of Victor Frankenstein’s life was most certainly based on Percy Shelley’s, if not intentionally, by familiarity. Shelley was a college dropout. He went to Oxford, but was asked to leave after anonymously publishing a scandalous tract on atheism authored together with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Shelley and Mary lived on Percy Shelley’s family fortune estate income, though Shelley was in conflict with his father over his share and they struggled through thin years. Mary herself never attended a formal school, though women’s education was a major theme of her mother’s writing. She was tutored at home as the daughter of a noted author and publisher, William Godwin, and she was a voracious reader for her education.
The reference to “Doctor Frankenstein” seems to come from the stage or film dramatizations of the story, where in dialogue, just calling him Frankenstein would get repetitive and “Mister Frankenstein” doesn’t seem to carry the weight of gravitas authority for such an important character. And even though his family had money and prominent position, he had no landed title, so Lord or Sir Frankenstein doesn’t work. Many of the later adaptations refer to him as Von Frankenstein, but in the novel he is not a noble and Frankenstein is not a land, just a family name. He was the son of a local bourgeois government official in French speaking Switzerland, where it would have been “de Frankenstein” if he was landed.
If the story of Victor Frankenstein’s miraculous creation of life from dead tissue had been verified and not have turned out so tragically, with his desperately following his murderous creation across a frozen north wasteland, he might have been given an honorarium title of doctor, or perhaps even have been knighted. But instead, perhaps the interview might conclude…
“Mr. Frankenstein, while we find your tale intriguing and colorfully inventive, we might suggest you take a long sea voyage and spend some time alone in the artic to gather your thoughts and perhaps submit a revised application, with more footnotes. And some references. Oh, your references have been murdered, too? Well…Hm.”