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Erin Finn

Dr. Kurland

Honors Freshman Seminar

November 10, 2011

Frankenstein: A Precursor to 20th Century Genocide and Eugenics

As any Mary Shelley reader can tell you, science can be used for either good or evil.

Certain sciences, in particular, have changed from perfectly acceptable tools of furthering human

development into excuses for mass genocide and ethnic cleansing. Im speaking, of course, of

the universally controversial subject of eugenics. Eugenics was initially an attempt to produce

healthier babies, but quickly degenerated into what it is associated with today: designer babies,

or the creation of a master race. Whereas designer babies are a topic of jokes and curiosity, the

subject of a master race inspires fear and discomfort in anyone familiar with the Holocaust. Most

genocides in the 20th and 21st century use eugenic as a reason to kill, rape, or drive out

undesirable races.

Although eugenics was formally introduced in the early 1900s, Mary Shelleys novel

Frankenstein provides two key examples of eugenics and the misuse of it. The creation of the

creature in itself can be argued as Frankensteins attempt at making the perfect human, bypassing

the natural course of life and birth. Perhaps more relevant, Dr. Frankenstein, by essentially

aborting the creatures wife, demonstrates that the once moral science of eugenics can lead to the

killing of individuals who are a perceived threat to the purity of the human race.
The concept of eugenics has morphed and transformed over the years. It is now defined

as selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically

in reference to humans (Encyclopedia Britannica). But, this is a very tame definition

considering its implications in politics and American law. One may believe that eugenics was

never misused in America. However, until the 1970s North Carolina had a Board of Eugenics

that oversaw the sterilization of nearly 7,600 people who were poor, undereducated, mentally

unstable (Wang). Recently, North Carolina was ordered to financially compensate those who

had been tricked or coerced into permanent sterilization. This scandal represents the threat

eugenics offers to modern Americans.

Eugenics most immoral consequence is the mass killing of those who are believed to

taint the next generation. Nazi Germany forever changed the connotation associated with the

science when it used eugenics as the justification for the extermination of Jews, gypsies, and

those who were mentally or physically handicapped. More recently, the Rwandan and Sudanese

genocides as well as Bosnian ethnic cleansing commonly use the prevention of births to lessen

the ethnic populations (Baron, 591). Therefore, the study of eugenics contributes to the problem

of genocide or at the very least the rationale for genocide. To be more specific on what I am

considering genocide, I am interpreting it as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group

of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race (Encyclopedia Britannica), as

well as a synonym for ethnic cleansing. This distinction is needed because often genocide is

defined without race or ethnicity, with ethnic cleansing as the destruction of race and specific

ethnicities. The connection between eugenics and genocide is essential in understanding the

immorality of the science as well as the immorality of Victor Frankensteins choices.


In his own act of genocide, Victor Frankenstein kills the creatures future wife. As a

promise to the creature, Frankenstein makes a female monster to satisfy his loneliness. In the

midst of the creation, Frankenstein contemplates the future of the two creatures and the possible

race they may make, the race of devilspropagated upon the earth (Shelley, 114). Victor

Frankenstein is appalled by the idea of the existence of the whole race (Shelley, 115) and

determines that it must be extinguished before its entire creation. The idea of propagation in

general is one that Frankenstein avoids even amongst humans, choosing to bypass sexual

intercourse when creating life (Mellor, 279). Some may argue that the extinction is saving

humans from the monstrosity of the creature. However, it is telling that the preservation of the

species is associated with an abortion of the female (Cottom, 69). The creatures existence

brings up the question of nature vs. nurture. I do not believe that the creature was born a monster,

but the lack of love and caring made him the abomination he is. To prevent the furthering of a

race of monsters, Frankenstein aborts his latest creation. This directly parallels the study of

eugenics leading into genocide. The scientist originally wants only to improve life and creation,

but in doing so demonizes a specific race of people. And I think its fair to consider the creature

closer to human than many people are. He feels, thinks, and acquires language as we all do. The

demonization of a race as something other and the justification of doing so in the name of the

people is frequently the beginning of genocide (Peterson). Thus, the alienation of the creatures

race as something other, allows Frankenstein to kill to protect his own race. This can be

viewed as genocide because Frankenstein insists on the destruction of an entire race, albeit a

small race.

Victor Frankensteins morality must be further examined in order to distinguish if this

constitutes a true genocide. In the initial stages of creation, Frankenstein views his creature as
both beautiful and terrifying at once. Before the creature lives, Victor describes his elation: A

new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would

owe their being to me (32). However, by the time the creation takes his first breath, Victor is

repulsed, calling him the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life (35). The

juxtaposition of emotions demonstrates Victors ineptitude. Like so many fathers, creation is the

pinnacle of Victors excitement. By the birth, Victor is already repulsed. The connection with

eugenics lies in this element of Shelleys characterization. Frankenstein is a mad scientist of

sorts, in search of the perfect species of man. Upon the realization that the reanimation of a dead

corpse is far cry from a happy and excellent nature, Frankenstein reverts to the genocidal

tendencies of eugenics scientist. The creation turns to creature, and Frankenstein later decides

this is reason enough for the extermination of his species.

This battle between creation and destruction mimicked Shelleys own personal life. As a

young woman who had lost her firstborn, Shelley was tortured by the idea of a life to be

resurrected. Scholars, including Ellen Moer, speculate that death and life were as hideously

mixed in the life of Mary Shelley as in Frankensteins workshop of filthy creation (221).

Nevertheless, the scholars, as well as the quote, fail to recognize the genocide Frankenstein

demonstrates so clearly.

Although seldom mentioned or discussed, the very real issue of genocide and eugenics is

presented in a positive light in Mary Shelleys Frankenstein. Eugenics itself has led to intense

violence, discrimination, and abortion against a specific group of people. This coincides with the

definition of genocide. Additionally, the study of eugenics can often appear to justify the

extermination of an undesirable race or ethnicity. This is all shown is shocking clarity and detail

in Frankenstein. The destruction of the one female in an entire race constitutes as genocide with
the justification of eugenics. Frankenstein truly believes his abortion will save his own race and

continue to allow them to flourish, unabashed by an undesirable creature.