Among my many potential book projects already started (I tend to work on several at any given time) is one on Frankenstein. I’ve read several studies of Mary Shelley’s novel and its afterlives, and I have at least three awaiting my attention on my “to read” shelf. One of the ideas regarding Frankenstein’s monster, about which I’ve written for Horror Homeroom, is whether it might’ve been influenced by legends of the golem. The golem was a Jewish monster that was animated clay or mud, brought to life to protect Jews from persecution. The golem, however, is soulless. As such, he (and he’s generally male) eventually goes berserk, killing indiscriminately. The tale has been around for centuries and one of the questions asked by Seth Rogovoy in “The Secret Jewish History of Frankenstein,” is whether Shelley could’ve known of the legend.
Frankenstein’s monster and the golem have quite a bit in common, so the question makes a lot of sense. Shelley and family friend Lord Byron were certainly well read. The article points out something I hadn’t realized—one of the Grimm brothers (Jacob, according to the piece on Forward) published a version of the golem story a decade before Frankenstein. Whether Shelley knew of it or not is the question. The two tales might well have been a case of convergent evolution. Frankenstein’s creature wasn’t intended as a protector. He was made of body parts, not mud. The main thing the two stories have in common is the god-like power to animate inanimate matter and the lack of ability to control what one has created.
Over time Frankenstein’s creature has become a classic monster. The golem, until about a century after Shelley’s novel and its endless adaptations, remained fairly obscure. A silent film series on the golem appeared in the 1920a. The golem has, however, more recently come into the light. Several novels feature a golem and two of my favorite monster-of-the-week shows (The X-Files and Sleepy Hollow) had episodes featuring one. Frankenstein, it seems to me, has a Christian worldview behind it. The horror, as noted by Shelley—herself leaning heavily atheistic—was in animating something that nature had declared dead. Victor Frankenstein, as the subtitle indicated, was a modern Prometheus—a human standing in for a Greek god. The poetic justice here is that this atheistic, yet Christian context, monster ends up doing the same thing as the Jewish golem. Both throw society into chaos. Both warn that creating can be a real problem for those who don’t think through the implications of what they’re doing. This is a message all people could still stand to learn.