The story of Frankenstein, which many people mistakenly think is the name of the monster (the monster doesn't have a name) is the story of scientific ambition gone wrong. Victor Frankenstein, contrary to later interpretations, is a college dropout who secludes himself to work out his theories. There is no hunchbacked assistant named Igor, Frakenstein is not an insane baron, and he does not wish harm on others.
Instead, Victor Frankenstein fills the "mad scientist" role because of his unbridled ambition and confidence in his own scientific abilities. The most interesting thing about this story is that Frankenstein is a tragic hero in the old Greek sense -- rich, intelligent, handsome, loved by a beautiful woman, and yet possessed of one tragic flaw that spells his downfall. This is of course supreme arrogance in his own ability.
The themes of What Hath Science Wrought and how dangerous the pursuit of knowledge can be runs thick through this story, as it does through most cautionary tales about pushing the bounds of human knowledge too far. Most interesting about the set up of this story is the frame narrative of Robert Walton's trip to the North Pole. When Walton discovers Frankenstein pursuing his creation to destroy it, he is attempting to push the bounds of human knowledge in another way by exploring the North Pole.
Frankenstein gives to Steampunk its focus on dangerous science and pushing at what we already know. Novels like Boneshaker, where science gone wrong is one of the central facets of that world's history, owe a debt to tales like Frankenstein. Mary Shelley and other writers of Gothic literature that crafted terror over science in their readers were the progenitors of "mad science" in fiction.
I leave you with this quote of Robert Walton describing Victor Frankenstein:
"What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall." (Chapter 24)Tomorrow: Urban Gothic and Terror in the City