Social Conflict in Frankenstein

Everyone today has no doubt heard the name of Frankenstein uttered from the lips of another or read from the pages of texts innumerable. It is a name associated with a monster of great proportions and the supposed madman who created it. However, from the depths the tale is a struggle. It portrays one man’s struggle to defy God’s authority and create life, the struggle of that creature to live and then finally the populace struggling to bring about the creature’s end.

In the novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley strove to show the people of her day that such an act as bringing to life a creature made of the dead was possible. Ziolkowski says in the Sewanee Review “Whereas moviegoers today regard Frankenstein films as a venerable form of the fantastic, Mary Shelley based her novel on what she believed to be the most up-to-date scientific theories. To the extent that her narrative is consistent with, and a logical extension of, existing scientific cognition, it is an example of science fiction in the most rigorous sense of the word.” Her novel served as both a celebration of the increasing knowledge of technology and the dangers that it could pose.

Of all the various reinterpretations, the 1931 film adaptation of Shelley’s novel by Universal has become signature among the masses. It is Boris Karloff’s image that is the most well-known as the classic Frankenstein monster. His part as the creature casts him against his creator and the rest of the countryside as he awakes into a world he’s never known. His immediate struggle begins with Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant. In this situation, it is the doctor who is the authority. He is the caretaker and overseer of the monster, but Fritz goes against his word and torments the creation. In a revolt, the monster kills Fritz and threatens the doctor and his old teacher, Dr. Waldman, who has come to try and convince him to leave and move on with his life. Finally, when the creature is subdued, Dr. Frankenstein thinks, and is reassured, that he is now safe enough to go home and return to his fiancée whom he is to marry.

Now the power within the film changes a bit. The monster breaks free, killing Dr. Waldman who had stayed behind to dismantle it. He leaves the tower in which he was created and roams the countryside only to stumble upon a girl playing by the lake. Strangely, the small child seems undeterred by his ghastly visage and leads him forth to play with her while her father is away. This act of innocent kindness goes awry when the creature, over excited by what he’s experiencing, picks her up and tosses her into the lake, just like the flower boats she had been showing him. When she does not surface, but instead sinks to her death, the monster is depicted as distraught and flees through the forest. This encounter is what incurs the wrath of the people in the town. The death of this small child connects to the monster and the Burgomaster is called upon. This man appears as the head of the town and immediately calls all able-bodied men to action. Now the authority has become the people. The monster has crossed the line and killed both a man of intellect and an innocent child.

In which the monster plays with the girl and then incidentally drowns her.

A sort of public hearing thus occurs. The men of the town gather before the stoop of the Burgomaster’s residence and he speaks to them as a man of political authority. He stands above the crowd on the stoop, giving him a higher physical position than the rest as well, furthering the idea that he possesses some greater authority. However, he then calls the father of the murdered child up with him to lead a part of the gathered forces. This gives the victim of the horrible deed authority as well. In these circumstances, the man whose child is lost becomes a leader, a figurehead of authority in the bringing to justice of the monster who slew his child. Continuing, the Burgomaster calls D. Frankenstein to the stoop and we see that he too still holds authority. As the monstrosity’s creator, he is both the power above it and the man responsible. To redeem himself he must destroy the creation. These three men stand above the rest of the crowd, the pinnacle of authority of justice in the hunt to bring back the murderous monster.

This depicts those heading the hunt for the monster, from left to right: the father of the murdered girl, the Burgomaster and Dr. Frankenstein.

On a curious note, police officers are clearly defined. They wear a specific uniform and, during the hunt, are the ones holding the hounds to track the fiend. However, they seem to hold little sway when it comes to the masses, hardly being able to hold back the initial flood of people as they surge to seek out the Burgomaster on the matter. This characteristic seat of power is lessened to below the three men on the stoop, even physically. Whereas the highest authority stands at the top, the police are left on the stairs. Even the angle of the camera depicts the viewer as part of the crowd, looking up to the men in charge.

This film shows an authority connected with the people and with family over that of any sort of law enforcement. The people think of each other, even going so far as to try and rescue a kidnapped Dr. Frankenstein before burning down the mill. Each time a man is injured, some stay back to help him return to the village. The power of the populace, of social justice, rises up to bring down the creation, saving humanity. As Scott Juengal says in his article, “To gaze on Karloff is to participate in an endless visual reconstruction of the monstrous body. Perhaps this is why we turn away, for ultimately the myth of Frankenstein is a cautionary tale against just such replication.” Just as Shelley wrote her novel to portray the technological advancements of the time, it was also a warning of the terrors such advancements could bring. The conflict involving man and its creation will always hold a struggle for power, but whether the land’s law is upheld depends on the people involved.


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