Two hundred years ago this summer, Mary Godwin, sleepless in Switzerland, conceived the plot of “Frankenstein.”
“I have found it!,” she remembered later. “What terrified me will terrify others …”
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
Two years later, her vision would become the book, “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” by the young woman by then known as Mary Shelley.
While she saw the phantasm, what Shelley could not have foreseen were the endless modern day mash-ups of her story’s title character.
Frankenfoods, Frankencrops, Frankenfish, and Frankenfarms. Frankenboobs, Frankenbiker, Frankenapp, Frankencareer, Frankenbot, Frankencisco. (For the curious, see the Urban Dictionary.)
Or of more recent vintage, consider the “Franken-Skeeters” Florida officials want to release in the fight against the Zika virus.
Or, just in time for Frankenstein’s bicentennial, “Frankentrump,” alternatively “Trumpenstein,” the spreading hashtag, the T-shirts and the commentary that spawned them — though it’s hard to tell which actually came first.
“Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster. Now he’s strong enough to destroy the party,” said the headline on a Feb. 25 column by Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.
He was “brought to life by the party,” Kagan wrote and “fed by the party …” which “taught Republican voters that government, institutions, political traditions, party leadership and even parties themselves were things to be overthrown, evaded, ignored, insulted, laughed at …”
On that same day, a column by David Corn in Mother Jones, a liberal media outlet, went a step further, actually using the term “Frankentrump” in a piece headlined “How the Republican Elite Created Frankentrump”:
The GOP elite laid the foundation on which Trump is building the biggest, classiest — really classy — most beautiful insurgent presidential campaign in all of US history. And there may be no emergency exit.
The use of Frankenstein as a metaphor for everything, including politics, is nothing new, said Susan Tyler Hitchcock, author of Frankenstein: A Cultural History and a senior books division editor at National Geographic.
Its usage began shortly after Frankenstein was published and hasn’t quit yet, never mind that many who deploy the metaphor nowadays have not read the book but are rather thinking of the 1931 movie featuring actor Boris Karloff, with bolts in his neck, an affectation not envisioned by Mary Shelley.
But, she says, based on her extensive research into the use and abuse of Frankenstein, she believes this is the first time it’s been deployed in a presidential campaign.
Frankenstein, Hitchcock says, is usually applied to something that “seemed like it was a good idea to begin with that overwhelms and destroys its creator,” something that “becomes more damaging than anyone first conceived.”
But its application to Donald Trump, she believes, is unfair — to Frankenstein.
Before going further, however, a disclaimer and a refresher.
The disclaimer: Hitchcock was a Bernie Sanders supporter who has become a Hillary Clinton supporter.
The refresher: Frankenstein is not the monster, as many think. Victor Frankenstein is a young student in the novel, curious about electricity and “galvanic” forces, who created the monster. In the book, the monster, in addition to having no bolts, has no name. Misunderstood, he torments his tormentors and pursues his creator to the end of the Earth.
So when Corn and others refer to Frankentrump, the Republican Party takes the role of Frankenstein, and Trump becomes the monster.
And that’s where Hitchcock thinks they’ve got it wrong.
Frankenstein was a curious student, albeit with a large ego. “There is a spark of genius in what Frankenstein does,” Hitchcock said in an interview with The Post. “There is this seed of creativity and genius that is at the heart of the monster.”
That doesn’t sound like the Republican Party to her.
Nor does that sound like the Republican Party leaders described by Kagan in his column, who fostered a “mindless Islamophobia, with suspicious intimations about the president’s personal allegiances … setting the stage for the rage that animates many Trump supporters.”
Trump doesn’t fit the bill of the monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” either, she says.
The monster “starts out totally ugly; he’s made of the parts of cadavers,” Hitchcock notes. “His skin his grayish. His eyes are yellow.”
Yet he is a creature of some pathos. “The monster is lonely,” says Hitchcock. He becomes menacing after being rejected by people, including Frankenstein, reacting to his appearance.
Is there pathos in Trump?
In fairness, Trump, unlike Frankenstein’s monster, has not been accused of violence, though many critics accuse him of inciting it with his words.
Mind you, neither Hitchcock nor this article takes it all that seriously. Metaphors and analogies are opinions. Unlike facts, people are entitled to them.
Variations on the Frankentrump theme have cropped up in campaign 2016.
Some see the news media as the Frankenstein that created Trump.
“You helped create this monster:” said the headline on a December 2015 Salon article by Elias Isquith. “The smug, shallow media that helped build the Donald Trump Frankenstein.”
Others have pinned the Frankenstein label on President Obama, among them conservative writer Victor Davis Hanson on Jan. 14, albeit hedging with the word “supposed” on whether Trump was actually a monster:
Barack Obama is the Dr. Frankenstein of the supposed Trump monster. If a charismatic, Ivy League-educated, barrier-breaking president who entered office with unprecedented goodwill and both houses of Congress on his side could manage to wreck the Democratic Party while turning off 52 percent of the country, then many voters feel that a billionaire New York dealmaker could hardly do worse.
Maybe they’ve all got it wrong. Maybe Trump is Frankenstein, rather than the monster.
“As I see it,” wrote Indiana University professor of medicine Richard Gunderman in the Conversation, in a piece having nothing to do with Trump, “the real monster in Frankenstein is not the creature but the creator, Victor Frankenstein. He aims to create a new species, not for the benefit of the world, but to glorify himself. He styles himself a philanthropist, but he is in fact a supreme egoist.”
Gunderman was writing about climate change, noting that the summer Shelley conceived Frankenstein was dark, gloomy and cold, thanks to the eruption of a volcano in what is now Indonesia that spread its ashes across the globe. The year, 1816, was called “the year without summer.”
Trapped indoors with Lord Byron and other literati in Lake Geneva, they took to telling ghost stories, which is why Shelley, then Mary Godwin, 18, was struggling to come up with one.
But every cause has its Frankenstein and its monster, albeit the connection arises most often in discussions of technology and science, most recently a debate over the ethics of head transplants.
But Frankenstein is popular among judges too.
A search of recent court cases turned up more than 500 examples: “judgemade doctrine … which like a Frankenstein’s monster meanders its well-intentioned way through the legal landscape;” a “Frankenstein monster posing as a class action;” “Frankenstein-like gallimaufry;” a “Frankenstein monster of impetuous justice” — not to a “veritable Frankenstein, a complicated procedure that far exceeds the hurt it is designed to heal …”
Frankenstein’s good for so many occasions.
As Shelley wrote of her “hideous progeny … go forth and prosper.”