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At a glance Frankenstein seems quite anti-semitic:

  • The name "Frankenstein" is a very Jewish name.
  • The creator is Dr - a common Jewish profession.
  • The townsfolk (symbolised by pitchfork {ei. farmers - not a common Jewish profession}) attack the "Jew" and burn down his house (the historic practice of "firing" was a common way to get someone out of your town).
  • The movie came about in the 1930s when anti-semitism was just about to peak.

Is there any history or solid evidence that Frankenstein is anti-semitic, or am I just reading into it too much?

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Frankenstein movie franchise is based on a novel by Mary Shelley. Check out wikipedia article for the references on Frankenstein's surname. Also it was published in 1818. –  default locale Oct 17 '12 at 6:55
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Those arguments don't seem strong to me. Surname Frankenstein is pretty much German. Third argument can be generalized on every plot with a conflict. Fourth just doesn't match with a novel (and history of antisemitism is older than a century). Doctor - a common Jewish proffesion ORLY? –  default locale Oct 17 '12 at 7:02
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I believe Stein is primarily Jewish by association of a lot of German Jewish refugees / immigrants from the period around the Second World War, as said by others these are German / Eastern European names. IMHO you are reading far too much into it. –  iandotkelly Oct 17 '12 at 12:15
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Only jews are farmers? Only jews are named "stein"? Most doctors are jews? Are you kidding? This topic is more anti-semitic than the films allegedly are. Please close this. –  BamfTheNightAway Oct 17 '12 at 14:32
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I'm disappointed this question has no mention of golems, which is where my mind went. –  user209 Oct 17 '12 at 14:35
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2 Answers 2

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What an interesting topic to research! While the question may somewhat oversimplify the seriousness of its topic, there is a small but vibrant body of scholarly literature out there to support or at least question the connection between antisemitism and both Early Modern English Literature and early American Gothic film-making, including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the 1931 film version of the story by James Whale.

Let's start with Mary Shelley and the England she grew up in. In the second half of the 18th century a bill was passed in England that allowed for naturalization of Jewish people in very limited circumstances (effectively only rich Jewish businessmen), which came to be known as the Jew Bill. Following passage, there was massive opposition by both the Anglican Church and London businessmen, and the bill was repealed, ushering in a transition to a new, modern incarnation of anti-semitism, which was a centuries old sentiment in Europe by that time (the Jews having migrated from country to country in search of a home).

As a young, insecure woman, Mary allowed her much older and experienced husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to make many edits to her text. We cannot know what influence his writing had over her work, but there are small anti-semitic strains in his writing as there are in that of many writers of his time (prevailing culture being an undeniable influence for artists). There is an essay attributed to Mary (in her handwriting) called "History of the Jews" which questions the credibility of several books of the Old Testament. And the 1831 edition of Frankenstein includes a passage describing where the character Elizabeth came from (a story about how her mother had picked a fair-haired, angelic child from a group of dark-haired and less desirable children - I can't find that text at the moment). None of this is to say that Frankenstein is anti-semitic, but only that Mary grew up with it and would have felts its influence, so a connection to her writing is plausible (Matthew Biberman, Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern English Literature, 2004).

While much recent historical scholarship suggests the creature from the book is symbolic of a broad range of societal elements, and that the story in general is about understanding the taboo or irrational, the films of the 20th century had other influences. "In an era when totalitarianism was reshaping the world's political landscape and attaining its form primarily through the ambitious expressions of individual megalomaniacs such as Hitler and Mussolini, the subtext of the Frankenstein films from 1930-45 detail the devastation that comes when an individual chooses to pursue domination fantasies and ignore moral prohibition" (Tony Magistrale, Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Post-Modern Horror Film, 2005). "Lugosi-Dracula, as well as other 1930s film monsters, like Boris Karloff's creature of Frankenstein, were often portrayed as social outsiders looking in through windows on a scene they long to be a part of but are excluded from. Their attempts at entrance threaten imminent destruction of that comfortable social order" (John Cawelti, Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture, 2004). Again, there is nothing definitively linking the film to anti-semitism, but there is enough information out there (and I have only quoted from two sources - there are more) to say it's possible.

The books I've mentioned are interesting looks at not only anti-semitism in reference to Frankenstein, but also other books and films that were from the same time periods.

PS - I also saw a reference in the literature suggesting that the creature is the misunderstood Christ, and the townfolk are the Jews who want to crucify him (he dies on the windmill). Not sure I want to pursue this topic any farther!

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First of all, the movie is of course based on Mary Shelley's 200 year old book, so your theory either applies to the whole franchise, as started by the book, or to the 1931 movie alone (which wasn't even the first movie), and I have never heard about any signs of anti-semitism analysed into Mary Shelley's work (though this may be just me and someone has already picked up that theory before). So we could actually devitalize the first two of your points, since they come directly from the book, but I've still listed them here, as they're the most easy to devitalize by common sense:

The name "Frankenstein" is a very Jewish name.

Even more than that it is a common German name and as we all know from the 200 year old book, Frankenstein was "by birth a Genevese". And also his family was "one of the most distinguished of that republic" which I would dare to say wouldn't hold so much for a Jewish family 200 years ago.

The creator is Dr - a common Jewish profession.

Huh? Well, it may be regional (or rather historic) reasons or ignorance (since I and most of the people I know don't really care about religion), but I know a thousand doctors (exaggeration intended) which are not Jews. And I also have never heard of such a cliche. Had he been a banker... (don't take that seriously, I don't want to support that cliche either).

And from your usage of the word "creator", I hope you don't mean the creator of Frankenstein, because that was Dr Victor Frankenstein's father (well, in fact his father was a doctor, too). You of course know that the creation is not called Frankenstein.

The townsfolk (symbolised by pitchfork {ei. farmers - not a common Jewish profession}) attack the "Jew" and burn down his house (the historic practice of "firing" was a common way to get someone out of your town).

Well ok, I don't remember that happening in the book. It is true that for historical reasons going back to medieval times Jews were indeed only allowed to a limited range of professions, none of that being farmers, I think. But still farmer is a very common human profession and I would rather see it as a symbol for the rather simple minded of people than for good Christians. And in fact driving someone out of your town by violence and burning down the house was probably not only done to Jews, I guess.

The movie came about in the 1930s when anti-semitism was just about to peak.

Ok, I don't know much about the situation in the US at that time so I cannot say this is true, neither do I know about The director's/writer's background. But in Europe anti-semitism IMHO didn't get "really popular" until two years after the movie. Other than that anti-semitism has always been "popular", even if not as drastic as in the last century.

Is there any history or solid evidence that Frankenstein is anti-semitic,

I don't think so, but maybe you find some remote analyst having tryed that weird theory before.

or am I just reading into it too much?

Most probably. Maybe the fact that in the US somebody called ...stein often is Jewish (as iandotkelly explains in his comment) might have confused you.

As as side note, if you want to see a movie that is IMHO both in its story, but even more so in its tone and moral, much nearer to the book (though not perfectly either), I recommend Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version. Or rather just read the book, which is really good, too.

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