Frankenstein, or the Christian Golem

Updated on June 18, 2018

Introduction

The story of the Golem is one of the most well-known legends in the Jewish religion. In it, a rabbi creates a man from clay to do his bidding, such as basic household chores. The Golem eventually gains too much strength, and so the rabbi takes away his life. Although many aspects of this story have greatly evolved throughout history, the core of the tale still remains the same. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, bears many strong resemblances to the story of the Golem. Many scholars have theorized that the Golem, specifically the story written by Jacob Grimm, directly influenced Mary Shelley’s story[1]. Undoubtedly, there are numerous similarities between the two stories. This paper will analyze some important similarities and differences between Shelley’s Frankenstein and Grimm’s story, specifically in terms of how the two religions, Christianity and Judaism, affected the variations. Furthermore, it will argue that most of the changes she made were directly influenced by Christianity.

First, it is important to note Mary Shelley’s own religious beliefs. She and her husband were well-known atheists; one may thus question the value of observing Christian influences in Frankenstein. However, many believe that Frankenstein is an satirical allegory of Genesis, the Creation story[2]. Many other aspects of Frankenstein also clearly reference Christianity, both in positive and negative ways. In the words of Robert Ryan, Shelley seemed to “acknowledge Christianity’s cultural value without endorsing its theology,” (Ryan). Regardless of Shelley’s personal views towards Christianity, it undoubtedly played a role in Frankenstein and thus examining its influence is important and relevant.

Secondly it is worthwhile to examine Jacob Grimm’s brief Golem tale. The text below, translated by Dekel and Gurley, will familiarize the reader with Grimm’s story:

The Polish Jews, after speaking certain prayers and observing fast days, made the figure of a man out of clay or loam, and when they speak the miracle-working Schemhamphoras[3] over it, the figure comes alive. It is true that he cannot speak, but he understands reasonably well what anyone says to him and commands him to do. They call him Golem and use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework, but he may never leave the house alone. On his forehead is written Aemaeth (Truth; God). However, he increases in size daily and easily becomes larger and stronger than all his housemates, regardless of how small he was at first. Therefore, fearing him, they rub out the first letter, so that nothing remains but Maeth (he is dead), whereupon he collapses and is dissolved again into clay.

But once, out of carelessness, someone allowed his Golem to become so tall that he could no longer reach his forehead. Then, out of fear, the master ordered the servant to take off his boots, thinking that he would bend down and that then the master could reach his forehead. This is what happened, and the first letter was successfully erased, but the whole load of clay fell on the Jew and crushed him. (Dekel and Gurley).

Creation

We will first examine and compare the creation of Frankenstein’s monster and the Golem. The creation of the Golem is heavily mystic: after days of praying and fasting, the creator speaks a hidden name of God and the creature is brought to life. This belief in the “supernatural power of the Name” is a very Kabbalistic idea (Bacher), although it is not limited to those who practiced Kabbalah: many Jews believed in the power of the alphabet and written word (Levine).

Christian mysticism, whether Mary Shelley was aware of it or not, was uncommon and not nearly as influential in the community as Kabbalah has been in Judaism. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster is, from what the reader knows, not connected to any magic or prayers at all: rather, it is Frankenstein’s science project. Victor Frankenstein specifically leaves out the details of his creation so that the reader cannot recreate the monster, vaguely referencing the use of chemistry. He simply says, “I had worked hard for nearly two years for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body,” (81).

Although this creation may not be mystical, it can still be viewed in terms of religion. The monster refers to Victor as his “Creator” and is conscious of Victor’s role in his existence, something that the Golem never seems to obtain (124). This, too, is reminiscent of Christianity: specifically, the creation of Adam by God in the book of Genesis. The monster says to Victor, “I ought to be thy Adam-- but I am rather the fallen angel,” (123). Looking at the creation of Frankenstein’s monster allegorically, it seems to be a somewhat inverted creation story. The monster, instead of having the innate perfection of Adam and Eve, is a “vile insect,” (122). Frankenstein attempted to act as a God by creating life, however as a man himself he cannot create the ‘perfection’ that God can. His creation thus becomes a hideous monster, a twisted version of Adam. Many scientists at the time were experimenting with and exploring cadavers, especially in terms of electrical experiments[4]. Shelley’s clear message is that attempting to ‘play God’ is both futile and harmful.

Discussing the purpose of both creations is also quite important: although the Golem’s purpose changes greatly from story to story, Grimm writes that he is used “as a servant to do all sorts of housework,” (Dekel and Gurley). His simplistic purpose has no deeper meaning. Frankenstein’s monster, however, was created without any specific purpose at all. The creation of life and opportunity for scientific advancement and discovery allured Frankenstein, and he became so utterly devoted to his creation that he did not realize how useless and hideous it was until after he had given it life. Yet again, Shelley seems to be clearly criticizing those who attempt to play the role of God and give life in unnatural ways.

Characterization and Actions

Frankenstein’s monster and the Golem have many physical similarities, as well as differences. Shelley describes Victor’s monster as “horrid…[a] miserable monster,” (81-82). Victor details the monster’s “inarticulate sounds” and the oddness with which it moves (82). Later, Victor notes how his stature “exceed[s] that of man,” and how he wishes to “trample [the monster] to dust,” (122). Many of these descriptions mimic the story of the Golem, who initially cannot speak but becomes stronger and taller as he ages. Similarly, Frankenstein’s monster is stronger and more intelligent when Victor encounters him months after his initial creation. The two creatures are both imitations of man, yet clearly not human. The Golem, being made out of clay, is clearly lacking the organic matter which composes humans. Frankenstein’s monster, however, does seem to be composed of human material, but he is so hideous that he is clearly inhuman.

Yet, the monster also has some marked changes from the Golem: he can, indeed, speak, and he speaks intelligently. He verbally reminds Victor of his creation and communicates his desire to be “benevolent and good,” (123) demonstrating the belief of salvation, which is clearly a Christian influence. In fact, Shelley creates an aura of sympathy surrounding Frankenstein’s monster. After Victor runs away from his creation, the monster finds a family and eavesdrops on it, eventually becoming fairly educated and well-mannered. He feels an “overpowering…mixture of pain and pleasure,” (134) upon seeing the elderly grandfather treat his young granddaughter with care. He is “deeply affected” (136) by any unhappiness they experience, and shows great empathy for the family. However, when he eventually approaches the family, they are terrified of him and they drive him away. Unlike Grimm’s short account of the Golem, Frankenstein’s monster is endowed with great depth of character.

Later, the monster makes one request of Frankenstein: a mate to live with. Then, he says, the two of them will disappear and never be seen again. Victor, although he initially agrees, ultimately destroys his second creation, thus cementing the monster’s eternal solitude. The reader is meant to feel quite compassionate for this wretched being, while Victor begins to seem more inhuman than his monster. The monster, despite his setbacks, continuously tries to be good: an essential pillar of the Christian faith. He feels remorse for his sins, is humble, and at times seems like an almost ideal Christian. Victor, however, runs away from his sinful creation and refuses to admit what he has done.

After the destruction of his future mate, although Frankenstein’s monster constantly wishes for salvation, he never receives it. Due to his circumstances, he plunges deeper and deeper into the world of sin and vows to take revenge on his creator. At one point, he reads Paradise Lost and compares himself to Adam: “his state was different from mine in every other respect…I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as my fitter mate; for often, like him…the bitter gall of envy rose within me,” (155). He is unable to find any parallel for himself, and thus he feels hopelessly alone. Despite his wishful attempts, it is clear that he has no reason to expect any salvation or mercy: as he has been constantly told, he is an unnatural and ungodly being. He is a Christian whose faith can bring no salvation. Shelley, in creating this character, may be indirectly representing her own views on Christianity. As earlier mentioned, she supposedly saw much of the societal value of religion and its morals, but found the actual theology and belief to be quite worthless. While the Golem can be assumed to be Jewish or, perhaps, not intelligent enough to have religion, Frankenstein’s monster has been massively characterized as a Christian in order to question some aspects of the faith.

Destruction

The Golem is destroyed by rubbing out one letter on his forehead, changing the Hebrew word for “truth” to “he is dead.” Similarly to his creation, his death is based in the mystic Jewish belief of the importance of words and letters. In the specific tale recounted by Grimm, a man allows his Golem to become too large so that he cannot easily erase the writing on his forehead. When his creator takes away his life, the Golem crumbles to dust on top of his creator and kills him simultaneously. Although there is much ambiguity about the specifications of the Jewish afterlife, the Golem can be assumed to be inhuman enough to not experience anything after his destruction. Thus, there is no moral concern over his death: Golems may be destroyed even more easily than they are created. The destruction of his creator, however, serves as a warning: not a warning to cease the creation of Golems, but rather a warning to use extreme caution when creating these creatures so that they cannot gain too much power.

In contrast, Christianity has a much more clear view of the afterlife. In Frankenstein, Victor becomes sick after he almost freezes in the Arctic while searching for his creation, whom he wishes to destroy. Victor dies soon after, and when his monster discovers this, he is greatly grieved and he swears that he will destroy himself. The monster then runs away, never to be seen again. Suicide is looked down upon as a sin in most forms of Christianity, and will send the suicide to Hell. The creature, then, ultimately does not achieve the salvation that he so badly sought after. His creator and his God is gone; he becomes a godless creature, free of his attachment to and obsession with his creator. Just as his creation was unnatural, so was his destruction.

Furthermore, it is important to note that just as in the story of the Golem, the creator himself dies. However, in Frankenstein, the creator’s death holds a very different message. The death of Frankenstein himself is a clear sign that attempting to create life can only end negatively. He died solely because of his horrific creation; had he never sinned by attempting to play God and create life, he, his best friend, and his bride would never have died. Victor essentially died in his sins[5], a theme that is indeed mentioned in the Bible. Yet again, Shelley’s message in the destruction of Frankenstein’s monster is that attempting to create life in unnatural and ungodly ways is sinful and can only end poorly.

Conclusion

It can thus be concluded that Christianity greatly affected many of the changes that Mary Shelley made from the Golem story. While many Jewish ideas, such as the mystical belief in the importance of words, would simply be uncharacteristic in the story, other aspects were purposefully changed in order for Shelley to convey messages about Christianity and explore religious beliefs. She clearly focused on the creation story, unnatural human creation, and the idea of salvation. The inverted version of the story of Genesis gives a harsh criticism of the human attempt to create life through science. The destruction of both the monster and the creator further this message. Frankenstein’s monster himself, however, acts as a Christian who cannot achieve salvation, no matter how hard he tries. This shows Shelley’s commentary on the futility of the strong Christian beliefs that pervaded society throughout her time, especially noting how these beliefs could not ultimately save a person.

Jacob Grimm’s story of the Golem, on the other hand, conveys quite a different message. Although religion is very present in the story, the actual message does not focus on religion. Rather, it seems to be a message about the importance of taking care of your possessions and creations and not being careless. The shortness of the tale makes it seem almost as though it was designed for children[6], and thus the simplistic lesson makes sense.

To conclude, Mary Shelley was clearly influenced by the story of the Golem. However, she made many changes to the story and naturally gave it much more depth, as she produced a novel instead of a simple short tale. Many of the changes that she made to the story were heavily influenced by Christianity and her own beliefs relating to the religion. Despite her atheist ideals, it is clear that she recognized how pervasive Christianity was in society and was aware of both the positive and negative aspects of its influence.

Furthermore, it is important to note the effect of taking a story that is so heavily based in Judaism and converting it to Christianity. One could hypothetically view it as cultural appropriation: stealing a story that belonged to Judaism and altering it just enough so that it has no remaining connection to the religion. Shelley gives no credit to the original tale at any point throughout the story or during her life. Yet, this is by no means the first time that Jewish culture has been taken without consent: there are echoes of Judaism’s influence on other cultures that reverberate throughout history. Although one could easily look upon this cultural assimilation in a negative light, it is important to recognize that cultures constantly borrow from one another, often unintentionally. This borrowing can revitalize traditions, influence ways of thinking, and even revolutionize society. Perhaps Shelley did not start a revolution, but there is no doubt that Frankenstein was, and remains to be, a wildly successful and impactful novel that could not have been created without the influence of Judaism.

Footnotes

[1] See Gelbin for an excellent discussion of the connection between the two.

2 See Ryan for further analysis of the role of Christianity in Frankenstein.

[3] Meaning God, a name of divinity, likely inscribed on an amulet. See Bacher for further reading.

[4] See Foley, et al. for further reading.

[5] See John 8:24.

[6] Indeed, many of the Grimms’ tales become childhood fairytales, despite their quite often gruesome content.

Works Cited

Bacher, Wilhelm. “Shem Ha-Meforash.” JewishEncyclopedia.com, Jewish Encyclopedia, 2011, www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13542-shem-ha-meforash.

Dekel, Edan & Gurley, David Gantt. "How the Golem Came to Prague." Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 103 no. 2, 2013, pp. 241-258. Project MUSE, https://muse-jhu-edu.dartmouth.idm.oclc.org/article/505656.

Foley, Lauren, et al. The Emergence of Popular Science. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2011, sites.google.com/a/wisc.edu/ils202fall11/home/student-wikis/group12.

Gelbin, Cathy S. “Was Frankenstein's Monster Jewish?” Publications of the English Goethe Society, vol. 82, no. 1, 2013, pp. 16–25., doi:10.1179/0959368312Z.00000000014.

Levine, F. “The History of the Golem.” Practical Kabbalah, 29 Apr. 2006, kabbalah.fayelevine.com/golem/pk005.php.

Ryan, Robert M. “Mary Shelley's Christian Monster.” Wordsworth Summer Conference. Wordsworth Summer Conference, 1988, Grasmere, England, knarf.english.upenn.edu/Articles/ryan.html.

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. London: John Murray, 2000. Print.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Bodleian Library, 2008.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Wandering Jew. Reeves and Turner, 1887.

Sherwin, Byron L. Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate the Biotech Century. Ivan R. Dee, 2004. Print.

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    © 2018 Molly Stroud

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