The 1931 Boris Karloff film showed us a Dr. Victor Frankenstein who robbed graves to sew together a creature and brought it to life with a bolt of lightning, and that’s the way most of us think of Frankenstein now. A revenant made of reassembled corpses.
But was it true to Mary Shelley’s story?
First off, you have to know that the structure of Shelley’s book is an ‘epistolary novel.’ The “Epistolary” part mean that it’s written as a document itself–in this case, as a series of letters. (Bram Stoker would later incorporate this same structure into Dracula.) This wasn’t anything revolutionary at the time–and it isn’t now, either. Think Bridget Jones’ Diary.
But we end up with two narrators, Robert Walton, who writes letters to his sister telling her the tale as it is told to him by Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
In answering the question of if the creature was a revenant–a dead body that rises from the grave–or not, we end up looking at the method Frankenstein used to create it. But the doctor is quiet on the subject, telling Walton, “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be.”
Which only means we have to look a little deeper for clues…
So where did the idea of the doctor using corpses for his experiment come from? If we look in the book, Frankenstein becomes interested in researching the line between life and death: “Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses.”
Dr. Victor Frankenstein studied the decay of dead bodies. Absolutely. He “saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.”
“Who shall conceive the horrors,” Frankenstein says, “of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?
He “collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame[...] The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials.”
What about the bolt of lightning? Earlier in the book, Dr. Frankenstein talks about his interests while at school. “Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.” So he knew about electricity and galvanism–which is the word for applying an electrical current to a dead muscle. (A modern experiment in galvanism involving a frog and a webserver.)
So is the creature made up of dead bodies, brought to life by electricity?
No. It can’t be. In Frankenstein’s own words, (the bolding is mine), “Pursuing these reflections, I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”
In the brackets, Frankenstein himself says he found it impossible restore a dead body to life. We can guess that the work he was doing with corpses and animal bodies was to figure out the secrets of how a body works.
Okay, you can maybe make an argument saying that he thought he could renew life–if death hadn’t corrupted the body. BUT Frankenstein says “A new species would bless me as its creator and source.” A new species–not the human species. He’s not reanimating a human here. He’s creating a new thing.
So what was his method? Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t tell us. He specifically doesn’t want us to know. What we do know is that he found the small scale of the human body frustrating to him. He had to work on a larger being. “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.”
If Frankenstein was sewing together existing nerves and sinews, why would the creature be huge? There would be no reason for a creature made of previously existing human body parts to be larger than a human body.
No, Frankenstein was working with something like human body parts, only bigger.
I can only come up with two theories:
a) He was working with mechanical things.
b) He was growing body parts in a vat and assembling them.
For me, I’m going to guess at option b. It’s a total guess. But the reason I’m picking it is that the creature has this desire to integrate into human society, and to me, that’s biological. It observes, it learns, and it wants things. Dr. Frankenstein takes one look at it when it rises alive, and he runs away. And this hurts the creature’s feelings. The rest of the book is about the creature’s hurt feelings.
But either way you go, the answer to the question of if Frankenstein’s creature was a revenant, risen from the dead… Our answer has to be no.