How can Prometheus be the modern Frankenstein

Reading by Mechthild Großmann, comments & music

This event in the Evangelical Academy was undoubtedly the highlight of the year for the "Medicine & Ethics" division!

"Frankenstein" is considered to be the Symbolic figure for the hubris of human research and has lost none of its importance to this day. It is sufficient to mention the name "Frankenstein" in a debate about medical-biological research to flash the threat of the researcher crossing borders and create a (diffuse) horror scenario.

We took the fact that the novel was published (anonymously at first) 200 years ago to hold a special event in the anniversary year. It played a role that almost everyone knows the name "Frankenstein", but almost no one has read the novel. Compared to the film, however, the novel has a different focus. Therefore, the aim of the event was that the novel is "discovered" through selected passages in order to reflect the current meaning.

Planning for the event had already started a year earlier. On the one hand, the well-known actress Mechthild Großmann was able to be won over for the reading. Ms. Großmann was a member of the Pina Bausch dance theater for 40 years and has played the role of public prosecutor Wilhelmine Klemm in Münster's “ARD-Tatort” since 2002. With their impressively deep voices, they turned out to be the ideal cast for the reading.

Together with Prof. Dr. phil. Kurt Bayertz, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Münster, the passages to be read were selected - in an intensive text study. (Mrs. Grossmann, who as an actress also has a lot of experience with reading books, expressly praised us for the successful selection of texts!)

The reading was divided into three parts, accompanied by remarks from medicine, psychology, philosophy and ethics.

  1. 1. Viktor Frankenstein's way of creating the creature
  2. 2. The suffering of the creature and the confrontation with its creator
  3. 3. The death and death of Viktor Frankenstein

The Modern cello-piano duo from Hamburg accompanied the event musically.

Aspects of reading

Our idea of ​​the being composed of corpse parts that is brought to life is mainly shaped by the classic film adaptation by James Whale from 1931, in which Boris Karloff plays the role of his life as the “monster” and the most famous cult figure in cinema becomes a true icon in the 20th century. However, this creature has little in common with the being that Mary Shelley describes in her novel: Although both are of large stature and have superhuman powers, while in the film adaptation of 1931 the monster cannot speak, only growls and is awkward in one In a suit that is much too short and trudges through the world with heavy shoes, the creature in Shelley's novel is far more filigree, extremely nimble and agile, highly developed in spirit, extremely reflective and articulate. His moving monologues fill entire book chapters. As an autodidact, it has acquired enormous knowledge within two years, it educates itself, learns to read, reads Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, John Milton Paradise lost and Plutarch - and understands that, like Adam, it was created "without any connection to any other form of life", but unlike Adam "also without any protection and without any possibility of fulfillment. So it decides to destroy the happiness of its creator, his family too ”(Kaube 2007). What follows is a merciless revenge story.

In the film we know from the start that the monster poses a threat because Igor, Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant (who does not appear in the novel), stole the “abnormal” brain of a criminal from the anatomical institute and Frankenstein used this brain. This idea does not come from the novel and does not exist in the stage versions either. It was inserted into the film script by one of the two screenwriters. A certain (time-related) psychopathological view becomes clear, which attributes crimes and moral misconduct to “abnormal” and “deviating” mental characteristics.

In the Frankenstein film from 1931, the monster carries evil from the start and thus deviates fundamentally from the description in the novel, since in Mary Shelley the creature is as innocent as a child. It is open to the world, whose values ​​and rules it does not (yet) understand. Tragically, it faces rejection and separation from the very first moment. Its creator, who could have become his father's caregiver, feels so repelled by its ugliness that he leaves it defenseless. This reaction is based only in the outward appearance of the creature and is not changed later in contact with other people by the fact that the being can speak and read, has literary education and does good deeds.

Good by nature?

Prof. Kurt Bayertz pointed out in his comment that the novel explores the question of how evil - in the form of violence and hatred - comes into the world. This is the question of the Enlightenment: Is the human being good by nature and is it only spoiled by the environment and social influences? This socio-politically controversial question also moved Mary Shelley's father William Godwin, to whom she dedicated the novel, and it can also be found with her husband Percy Shelley: How can someone who was suppressed and treated unworthily yesterday turn into the next day Become a sensitive, tolerant and independently thinking person? Mary Shelley discusses this question based on the life story of the unfortunate creature: How can someone who has never experienced love and affection, who has only been rejected and was never allowed to experience firsthand what it means to lead a dignified existence, suddenly act humanly? How can necessary basic trust arise without a reference person?

Can be read Mary Shelley's educational novel as a bitter answer to the classic of this genre: to Jean-Jaques Rousseau Émile from 1762? In this influential social-theoretical experiment, the orphan boy Èmile is kept almost completely away from the influences of society and is guided and educated by a male teacher. The aim was to show the positive effects of private upbringing compared to the negative influences that the child experienced through society and public educational institutions in the 18th century. And like Rousseau's narrator on his pupil, Shelley conducts a thought experiment on Frankenstein's creature: an education outside the natural community.

Miss Dr. Susanne Markwort, Head physician at the Clinic for Psychiatry in Schlüchtern, explained that in the mid-20th century developmental psychology took up this question again and the child psychiatrist John Bowlby explained the fundamental importance of attachment and the dramatic effects of the experience of separation for early childhood development, among other things by observing the effects of separation from Young children of their mothers will become aware during inpatient stays in the hospital.

In the novel and in the film, the creature hardly experiences any affection. Hatred and violence ultimately appear as an understandable reaction to experienced injustice and abuse. The creature was denied everything that it needed as a defenseless “newborn”: food, protection, security, care, community and love.

Even if the birth of a person without a female body or uterus, ie only through (male) technology, is not (yet) possible, the topicality of the questions is obvious: numerous technical interventions starting with artificial insemination, egg and Sperm donation, through surrogate motherhood to interventions in the germ line, which appear on the horizon of possibilities with the new CRISPR / Cas9 procedure, it becomes clear that alienation in the parent-child relationship can (does not have to) occur with possibly fatal consequences. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein points to the turning point in the parent-child relationship when the child with his appearance, his abilities, his health and disease predispositions no longer passively received in good hope as “fate”, but as a “product planned and ordered " becomes. What if the desired child does not meet the expectations of the “parent”? Is it allowed to “give back” a living being? Can the adoption of a child born to a surrogate mother be refused? Can a child genetically modified by CRISPR / Cas9 be left to its own devices? Can the intervention in the germline lead to a new species of humans, which over time is discriminated against and marginalized by the "unmodified"? The depressing thing about Shelley's story is that the creature is only in one “Failed” category: the external shape. Other attributes such as strength, sportiness, endurance, cleverness, eloquence, which it clearly distinguishes from others, cannot even taken together protect the creature from persecution and abuse.

Failed inclusion

Significant that the creature was never adopted by other people is that it has no name. Nowhere in the novel (not even in the film adaptations) is the being addressed by name. It is the creature, the monster, the creature, the monster, the nameless .... This story by Mary Shelley can also be read as a tragic example of a failed inclusion, whereby there is no lack of personal effort, education or language acquisition. It is a painful and at the same time a warning report about the consequences of experienced intolerance and racism, which ultimately turns into violence and hateful revenge.

Conclusion of the event: Timeless questions

The Frankenstein motif is timeless and can be interpreted in countless ways. That is the secret of the novel's success. It is both about the limits of human knowledge and the constant desire to emulate God. It is about the Faustian endeavor to be close to the divine creative power for a short time and about the tragedy of not being able to live up to one's own responsibility. It's about the "two beings in the breast", about the good and bad sides of the human psyche; it is about the exclusion of anything strange that arouses fear. The story is a mixture of fascination and horror, dream and nightmare, guilt and responsibility.

Frankenstein is at the same time a family and educational novel that goes wrong. A homeless and stateless orphan, rejected by its own "family", abused by society, expelled from the community, ignored by law and order. A nameless being that longs for human warmth and affection and becomes a victim of exclusion, exerts deadly retribution out of revenge and is doomed to perish.


It was planned well in advance that an article on "Frankenstein" would appear as a double page in the Evangelical Sunday newspaper (on the Sunday before the event) and a full-page report on the topic a few days before the event with an interview and reference to the event in the deutschland part the Frankfurter Rundschau (both articles are attached or available).

The event was fully booked.