One of the highlights of my college career is that once I was able to quote a Saturday Night Live sketch in an academic paper. (It was the “Firelight” sketch, specifically, but darn WordPress won’t let me embed Hulu videos.)
The paper itself was about the way, over the last two hundred years, our culture has “dumbed down” the story and lesson of Frankenstein. This seems pretty relevant to the blog, so I thought I’d talk a bit about how the reverse of media-changing-language is sometimes true. The novel Frankenstein deals with some pretty weighty stuff — science vs. nature, unchecked ambition, revenge, isolation, the pros and cons of living in Switzerland — you know, serious matters. But, you wouldn’t know that based on the way we throw around the word “Frankenstein” in common conversation.
I’d imagine that when the majority of the population hears the word “Frankenstein,” they think of a big, lumbering, green monster with bolts in its head, fear of fire, and taste for destruction. But, if I’m going to nitpick (and I am), Frankenstein is actually the name of the scientist who created the monster. The monster itself doesn’t even have a name. And, Mary Shelley’s description of the creature never mentions green skin (Yellow? Sure. Green? Of course not!), stiff movement, or bolts. Victor Frankenstein describes his creation:
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
(via Project Gutenberg)
Not only does the creature as we generally think of it look quite different from the original description, get this — it’s verbal. And literate! I mean, the creature can talk and read! Bet you’d never guess that based on this:
In the case of Frankenstein, instead of direct media-to-language change, it’s more of a media-to-language-to-media change. We changed the meaning of the word and story of “Frankenstein” to make it more about entertainment than moral questions, and then we took that meaning that we fashioned in the first place, and made it a part of our vernacular to essentially mean a mindless, ruthless monster. Unless you’ve read the novel, the term “Frankenstein” probably means nothing more to you than that creepy green monster stumbling around because that’s what we’ve let it become, and that’s what it means in our common speech. “Frankenstein” is no longer about a man tormented by his need for power. Instead, it’s just a caricature of a creature stomping around and scaring townsfolk, because that’s the way our culture has been best able to deal with it and make it part of our language.
(As a side note, there’s a really great clip from last year’s Halloween episode of Community in which Troy dresses up as Dracula. When someone asks him if he’s a vampire, his response is along the lines of “I don’t need to know which Dracula I am, I’m just a Dracula!” I think this kind of speaks to the same thing — these characters are so ubiquitous that we forget their origin, and in Troy’s mind, “Dracula” means “vampire.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video to post.)