Printer Friendly

Lab life: vitalism, promethean science, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley, Theologian

Sometimes a novel can be too successful for its own good. Odd as that claim might sound at first hearing, one need only recall Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Franz Kafka's The Trial, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to be convinced of its veracity. Despite their obvious differences, these otherwise dissimilar works have at least this in common: they are all novels that have become victims of their runaway fame. This victimization, so to speak, happens whenever a work of fiction speaks so much to its time that it takes on a life of its own: people believe they can absorb its lessons (or what the culture takes to be its lessons) without having to go through the bother of reading the original work at all.

But Shelley's book became a hostage to its success twice over, for the popularity of most other iconic novels does not usually entail a distortion of the events recounted in their original narratives. Not so with Frankenstein. Within a mere five years of its publication, the plot--and therefore the point--of the novel was so thoroughly worked over that its real lessons became quite lost on those who have never read the book itself. Little reviewed upon its publication in 1818, it did not even manage to sell the initial 500 copies of its first edition. (1) This muffled reaction changed when, in the 1820s, several dramatized versions of the novel were put on the boards in England, the first and most influential of which gave us many of the extra plot-bits we know today: a lab assistant (here named Fritz), the surgeon's intimidating operating table, a massive electrical apparatus zapping the lifeless corpse, and so forth. (2)

The Boris Karloff movie version of 1931 (directed by James Whale, with screenplay by Garrett Fort and Francis Edwards Faragoh) only compounded the distortions: Now the "monster" is entirely mute; worse, he lives out his sad, brief life saddled with the brain of a recently deceased criminal of dim intelligence. To add to the muddle, he was brought to life in the movie by a middleaged (and apparently fully licensed) "doctor," and played to the hilt as cinema's first great example of that by-now standard Hollywood trope, the mad scientist. Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, however, was in fact a medical student from Geneva: in his mid-twenties, he was supposed to be studying medicine at Ingolstadt (as his family thought), but in fact began to skip classes after his first year in order to pursue his obsession with creating life in the laboratory.

So popular and influential was this movie that nowadays most of the public knows the "monster" as a lurching, looming hulk barnacled with steel bolts in his neck, sporting stitches in his high forehead and topped off with that iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger haircut. Ironically, that same public now usually associates the Frankenstein surname not with his "mad" creator but with the creature--which is perhaps poetic justice, since Victor had categorically refused to bestow a name, any name, on his misbegotten handiwork. A fitting upshot, for now the creature has finally usurped his creator: Ask for a Frankenstein mask at a Halloween store, and a Boris Karloff mask is what you'll get. (3)

The result of all these changes, early and late, has been to upend what makes the novel so enduringly topical, indeed so illuminatingly theological. To get across her essentially theological lesson, Shelley needed a creature who could speak back to his creator. Moreover-and this point cannot be stressed enough--in the novel the creature not only speaks but does so with an articulation and a grammatical fluency that could rival the complex, elegant repartee in one of Jane Austen's genteel parlors. Admittedly, the expedient by which Shelley has this new-made creature come to such conversational eloquence strains credulity: he picks up his aristocratic cadences from listening through a crack in the wall of a hut where a French nobleman and his son and daughter-in-law have taken refuge from the depredations of the French Revolution, and who are now living the life of rustic innocence in Bavaria. An even unlikelier turn of events allows the creature to teach himself to read--and not just primers, either, but also, no less, John Milton's Paradise Lost and classical works of world history like Plutarch's Lives. (4) Once the creature's verbal fluency and remarkably wide-ranging reading have been established, however implausibly, Shelley also made sure that the creature got a hold of Victor's journal. Thus he was able not only to track down his creator (who by this time had fled in horror back to his family's estate in Geneva), but also to get to know for the first time the story of his birth in the lab--making Victor's journal the creature's book of Genesis, as it were. Shelley used as the epigraph to her novel this passage from Book X of Paradise Lost, in which Adam, newly expelled from Eden, hurls back at God this cry of pain at having been created in the first place, which--our first parent points out none too meekly--happened entirely without his permission:
   Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
   To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
   From darkness to promote me? (X lines 743-45)

If Adam, feeling "put out" (in both senses of that word: having been expelled and also feeling resentful), could claim justification for his bitterness at God's arbitrariness, then the creature, armed with his own Miltonic rhetoric, could claim a greater:
   All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am
   miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and
   spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only
   dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.... Remember, that I am
   thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen
   angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see
   bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent
   and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again
   be virtuous. (5)

Because of his size (Victor had made him eight feet tall) and the sutures that sewed together his various body parts, this ugly, misbegotten Adam started off as fallen: rejected of men at the first sight of him, he was driven out of Ingolstadt by its inhabitants within hours of his birth. But unlike Adam, indeed unlike the fallen angel Lucifer too, he was given no initial choice, edenic or celestial. Rather, he emerged from his creator's laboratory already an inevitable outcast, abandoned in horror even by his own creator. As Victor says to Captain Richard Walton, the narrator of the novel: "I had desired [experimental success] with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." (6)

Frankenstein and theVitalist Debate

The story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein is well known: it was first conceived when Lord Byron challenged his guests at a Swiss chalet on a cold summer evening to write a ghost story. But the role in the book's genesis of the heated debate over Vitalism--the doctrine that claimed a "life principle" is present in all living things over and above the metabolic functions accessible to the physiologist--is less recognized. (7) Actually, though, the riveting account of the novel's birth is directly related, genealogically, to the Vitalist controversy, a connection that can be seen when one considers the intellectual background of Byron's house party that famous evening.

As Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler wittily put it, it really was a dark and stormy night when Mary Shelley first conceived her creation. (8) Gathered at the Villa Diodati, a summerhouse on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, on that chilly and rainy night of June 16, 1816, were Lord Byron (ne George Gordon, 1788-1824), aged twenty-eight and the most famous poet of his day; his physician, John Polidori (1795-1821), aged twenty-one, who only two years before had been graduated from the medical school of the University of Edinburgh, and who rose to Byron's challenge by writing his own famous Gothic novella, The Vampyre in 1819; the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), aged twenty-three and already notorious for his atheism; Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851), aged eighteen and Percy's future wife; and, finally, Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), who first introduced Byron to the Shelleys. The Hooblers pick up the story from there:
   To entertain his guests on that rainy summer evening, Byron opened
   a volume of German horror stories translated into French, and began
   to read aloud from it. Flickering candles and burning logs in the
   fireplace provided the only light, other than the flashes of
   lightning that abruptly illuminated the windows. Byron liked to
   frighten people, and as the others became increasingly agitated by
   the jarring crashes of thunder and the howling of the wind outside,
   his enjoyment increased. Upon finishing, Byron closed the book and
   proposed a contest: each of them would try to write a ghost story.
   He could hardly have imagined that his challenge would result in a
   novel that was destined to become more famous than his own work, or
   that Mary Godwin, eventually to be known as Mary Shelley, would be
   the author. (9)

This story is of course well known, perhaps the most oft-told account ever of the inception of a literary work in the whole canon of English literature. But less well known is the fact that, before fleeing England with Mary, Percy was visiting (both socially and for medical reasons) his physician, Dr. William Lawrence (1783-1867). While Percy was still in England, Lawrence was becoming celebrated as a fierce critic of Vitalism, especially of the religiously tinged version promoted by his mentor at the Royal College of Physicians, its president, Dr. John Abernethy (1764-1831), who among his other patients was treating Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) for his addiction to laudanum. (10)

Abernethy's theory of vitalism drew on a number of sources that posited a mysterious but palpable life force that is the source of animation in living things. In some materialist circles this life force was understood to replace the traditional concept of the soul, while others saw it as a scientific support for the existence of an animating (and in man an eternal) soul; this latter option is the one Abernethy chose to defend, as Holmes notes:
   Abernethy proposed a theory of human life based on a semimystical
   concept of a universal, physiological life force. Blood itself
   could not explain life, though it might carry it. This universal
   "Vitality" was a "subtle, mobile, invisible substance, superadded
   to the evident structure of muscles, or [some] other form of
   vegetable and animal matter, as magnetism is to iron, and as
   electricity is to various substances with which it may be
   connected." Abernethy further suggested that this theory brought
   scientific evidence--if not exactly proof--to the theological
   notion of the soul. If the Life Force was "super-added," some power
   outside man must obviously have added it. (11)

Vitalism had begun as a viable doctrine in the previous century with the electrical experiments of Luigi Galvani (1737-98), an Italian physician and professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, who claimed he could reanimate dead frogs by injecting them with what he called "animal electricity," which he managed to do when his dead specimens were affixed with metal pins connected to plates rubbed together to create an electrical charge. The fame of these experiments bequeathed to the European languages the verb "to galvanize." Unfortunately for Galvani's later fame, another Italian scientist, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), professor of experimental physics in Como and a Fellow of the Royal Society no less, disproved Galvani's claim. (12) His fame gave the world the word "volt" (for the measure of force of an electrical current), though of course this fame came not from his refutation of galvanism but for his invention of the battery, called a "voltaic pile" in his day (and in Shelley's novel).

This voltaic battery proved crucial in the experiments of the most famous chemist of the day, Humphry Davy (1778-1829; president of the Royal Society from 1820-27), whose ability to isolate a large number of independent elements belonging to what would later be called the Periodic Table depended crucially on his ability to send an electric current through various compounds. (13) At least according to Abernethy, Davy's successful experiments proved there was something to Vitalism after all. Despite the refutation of galvanism, life was electric. Holmes continues:
   In drawing his analogies between Vitality and electricity,
   Abernethy also called on the authority of Humphry Davy's Bakerian
   Lectures at the Royal Society. Like many scientific men of the day
   he was entranced by the potentialities of the voltaic battery, and
   its possible connections with "animal magnetism" and human
   animation. Electricity in a sense became a metaphor for life
   itself. "The experiments of Sir Humphry Davy" [lectured Abernethy],
   "seem to me to form an important link in the connexion of our
   knowledge of dead and living matter. He has solved the great and
   long hidden mystery of chemical attraction, by showing that it
   depends upon electric properties which the atoms of different
   species of matter possess." (14)

So while Galvani's specific experiments were shown to have been based on a misconception, the mystery of electricity's role in life, and indeed in all chemistry, remained (Davy in fact invented the term "electro-chemical"). So in some yet unspecified way, there seemed to be a physical connection, or least a correlation, between electricity and life. (15) The irony, though (and one missed by Abernethy), is that vitalism is far more compatible with materialism and in fact first entered public consciousness in Britain under that banner. Abernethy, after all, trained under the great surgeon (and early advocate of vivisection) Dr. John Hunter (1728-93), who held that the life-principle was located in blood, or more specifically, oxygenated blood. Another defender of Vitalism, the radical advocate of the French Revolution John Thelwall (1764-1834), disagreed, considering Hunter's sanguinary views too simplistic. Still, his demurral was no concession to spiritualism, for Thelwall held that "spirit, however refined, must still be material." (16) But if the source of life was not located in the blood, and did not come from God, where then did it come from, and above all, what was it?

While this debate was raging, another Italian, and indeed another professor of anatomy from Bologna, Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834), brought the controversy to new levels of public fascination--and horror: on January 17, 1803, he attempted to revive the body of a murderer six hours after he had been hanged. As one can easily imagine, the press was agog, as we learn in this one breathless contemporary account: "On the first application of the [electrical] arcs, the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.... The arms alternately rose and fell ... the fists clenched and beat violently the table on which the body lay.... A lighted candle placed before the mouth was several times extinguished." (17)

In the face of this notoriety, Abernethy--the most prominent physician in England of his day--staked his reputation on his defense of a religiously tinged version of Vitalism in the prestigious Hunterian Orations, named after his mentor, Dr. John Hunter. Lectures specifically devoted to the memory of this famous surgeon were obviously meant to defend Vitalism, although Abernethy himself went beyond Hunter's sanguinary (and implicitly materialist) views, positing, as we saw above, a superadded power, and in this way rescuing Vitalism from its antireligious implications.

Imagine his surprise, then, not to mention that of the public, when the next year's lecturer, Percy's physician, Dr. Lawrence, savagely attacked everything Abernethy stood for--a betrayal made doubly painful for Abernethy because he had nurtured Lawrence's career from its outset. Deeply influenced by French materialists of the Enlightenment, who scorned the idea of an immortal soul and apotheosized l'homme machine, Abernethy's protege was especially taken with the reductionist theories of Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) and especially with Bichat's mordant definition of life as "the sum of the functions by which death is resisted." (18) Accordingly, he saw his chance to go in for the kill when he was invited to give the next set of Hunterian Orations. "It was the custom that one Hunterian Lecturer would preface his remarks with an appropriate salute to the endeavors of the previous incumbent. But on entering the lecture hall, after a few elegant throwaway compliments, Lawrence began roundly to attack Abernethy's theories. He stated bluntly that there was absolutely no such thing as a mysterious Life Principle, and that the human body is merely a complex physical organization. In a phrase that became notorious, he claimed that the development of this physiological organization could be observed unbroken, 'from an oyster to a man.'" (19)

But what then of the obvious distinction between inert and living things, or between once living and now dead things? What of blood (not found in rocks), of oxygen (so necessary for life), of electricity (making the legs of dead frogs twitch), of magnetism (which could make even inert metals move)? Could all these phenomena really be dismissed with an enlightened sneer? But for Lawrence, that very variety of proposed sources for the life force showed that the search for the mysterious elan vital (as Henri Bergson would later call it) was a vain chase after fool's gold. "Lawrence's references to Abernethy became steadily more aggressive and sardonic. 'To make the matter more intelligible, this vital principle is compared to magnetism, to electricity, and to galvanism; or it is roundly stated to be oxygen. 'Tis like a camel, or like a whale, or like what you please.' ... This last was a contemptuous, and deliberately literary, allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet mocking the foolish old Polonius." (20)

Lawrence was here expressing the materialist creed with all the vehemence of a proto-version of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett. Here was science, firmly holding in its steely grip the irrefutable facts of physiology, using empirical methods and doing battle with the ethereal, untestable mumbo-jumbo of religion and theology:
   Science, he argued, had an autonomous right to express its views
   fearlessly and objectively, without interference from Church or
   state.... "An immaterial soul and spiritual being could not have
   been discovered amid the blood and filth of the dissecting room."
   Finally he attacked the very nature of the religious, mystifying or
   unscientific philosophy which Abernethy appeared to be
   promulgating. "It seems to me that this hypothesis or fiction of a
   subtle invisible matter, animating the visible textures of animal
   bodies, and directing their motions, is only an example of that
   propensity in the human mind, which had led men at all times to
   account for those phenomena, of which the causes are not obvious,
   by the mysterious aid of higher and imaginary beings." (21)

As we have already noted, Lawrence was serving as Shelley's physician at this time; indeed, besides counseling Percy to betake himself to Italy to cure his many nervous ailments, he also recommended that his impressionable patient take along several French and German works in experimental, materialist medicine. (It was while consulting Lawrence that Shelley wrote an essay on the finality of death, his "Essay on a Future State.")

Out of this swirl of controversy came Mary Shelley's novel. In fact, she recalls in the introduction she wrote for the 1831 edition of the novel that in the days before Bryon issued his ghost-story challenge, his guests were discussing these same controversies:
   Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and
   Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During
   one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and
   among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there
   was any probability of its ever being discovered and
   communicated.... Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism
   had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a
   creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with
   vital warmth. (22)

Based on these conversations, and while mulling on Lord Byron's challenge, Mary Godwin had a nightmare, one vivid enough to give her the idea for her novel, which became the first science-fiction novel in world literature: "I saw [in my dream] the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful it must be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." (23)

The claim is often made that the changes Mary Shelley made in the 1831 edition indicated both a loss of nerve and the intrusion of extraneous theological exculpation from the alleged materialist blasphemies of the 1818 edition. (24) For example, Marilyn Butler claims the 1818 version was written to validate the materialist, anti-Vitalist views of Lawrence and her future husband: "As the daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, Britain's leading theoretical sympathizers with the Revolution, Mary, like her husband, had to come to terms with life in the period of France's defeat. Revolutionary political theory had temporarily become virtually unwritable; but an alternative historical narrative might still be provided by the natural sciences, materialist and especially evolutionary." (25)

But this view surely cannot withstand scrutiny; for, after all, Victor Frankenstein succeeded where Galvani and Aldini had failed. Of course, such experimental "success" (such as it was) on Victor's part was necessary for the plot to get going, and writers of science fiction are certainly not required to believe in the plausibility of their scenarios. (26) But in a way, that is precisely the point. As Holmes points out, what Lawrence contemned asfiction (his italics) Shelley turned into fiction:
   She would develop exactly what William Lawrence had dismissed in
   his lectures as a "hypothesis or fiction." Indeed, it was to be an
   utterly new form of fiction--the science fiction novel. Mary
   plunged instinctively into the most extreme implications
   ofVitalism. In effect, she would take up where Aldini had been
   forced to leave off.... But she would go further, much further. She
   would imagine an experiment in which an entirely new human being
   was "created" from dead matter. She would imagine a surgical
   operation, a corpse dissection, in reverse. She would invent a
   laboratory in which limbs, organs, assorted body parts were not
   separated and removed and thrown away, but assembled and sewn
   together and "reanimated" by a "powerful machine," presumably a
   voltaic battery. Thus they would be given organic life and
   vitality. But whether they could be given a soul as well was
   another question. (27)

That is the real question addressed by the novel: does reanimation include the infusion of a soul? Shelley answers this question with an unambiguous Yes: this creature does have a soul--as shown by his eloquence, his pathos, his pride, and his insistence that his creator make for him an Eve for mutual companionship: "'No Eve soothed my sorrows, or shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam's supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? [But my creator] had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him.'" (28) His pathos is close to unbearable: "Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested." (29)

In the face of such pathos, Victor at first agrees to fashion a vitalized Eve for his lonely creature; together they journey to the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, where Victor robs the grave of a recently deceased female adolescent and gets to work. But as his work progresses and memories of his nightmare years in Ingolstadt return, he hesitates and begins to think of what this new being with her own soul will think and do:
   I was now about to form another being [recounts Victor to the
   narrator Captain Walton], of whose dispositions I was alike
   ignorant; she might become ten thousands time more malignant than
   her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and
   wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man, and
   hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all
   probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might
   refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation.... She
   also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of
   man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the
   fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species. (30)

Not only does Frankenstein's creature have a soul, so too will his Eve if her creator goes ahead with his second experiment. But then, just before full animation, Victor butchers the half-alive corpse, prompting his male creature to howl in pain:
   "Shall each man," cried he, "find a wife for his bosom, and each
   beast have his mate, and I be alone? I had feelings of affection,
   and they were requited by detestation and scorn....Are you to be
   happy, while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness? You can
   blast my other passions; but revenge remains--revenge, henceforth
   dearer than light or food! ...Beware; for I am fearless, and
   therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that
   I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries
   you inflict." (31)

Victor once again flees back to Geneva, where he finally marries his fiancee (they had been affianced since before he left for medical studies in Ingolstadt); but his creature makes good on his revenge-filled threats by killing his wife on her wedding night. Enraged, Victor now becomes the one soaked with revenge, chasing his creature through the Arctic north, where an English ship picks up the shipwrecked and exhausted hunter. Near death at his rescue, he slowly recuperates and tells his strange tale to the Captain, who then recounts the whole to his sister living in England. Victor finally dies in the Captain's quarters, at which point the creature climbs aboard and promises to leave the society of men for the loneliness of the North Pole, thus concluding the novel.

Victor's parting words to Walton deftly reveal his lingering ambivalence about his project of creating life in the laboratory. On the one hand, his scheme led to untold misery for him and his family, and made him as miserable as Milton's fallen angels: "When I reflected on the work I had completed, no less a one than the creation of a sensitive and rational animal, I could not rank myself with the herd of common projectors. But this feeling, which supported me in the commencement of my career, now serves only to plunge me lower in the dust. All my speculations and hopes are as nothing; and, like an archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell." (32)

On the other hand, these expressions of regret seem, if not halfhearted, at least born out of Victor's approaching death. For when he thinks of the future, of imagined experimental endeavors after his death, another scenario comes to mind: "Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" (33) Victor botched the job when he created his own Adam; but he died hoping for a future Prometheus to make good on his dream of creating lab life.

Adam and Prometheus

The previous two sections of this article have sought to establish the consistently theological import of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In communicating this monitory lesson, her initial 1818 edition differs in no way from the revised 1831.34 For, in both editions, the creature obsessively returns to the contrast between his fate and Adam's:
   Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other
   being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in
   every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a
   perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial
   care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire
   knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched,
   helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter
   emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the
   bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

But even Satan was happier than this misbegotten creature, for at least Satan had companions in his rebellion against God; but the creature had no Eve, making enviable even the satanic hosts, who had each other: "But no Eve soothed my sorrows, or shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam's supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? He had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him." (36)

The difference of course comes from the fact, too little noted by most critics (perhaps because the point is so obvious) that Victor is not God. Rather, he is Prometheus, the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to men, a point Shelley brings home to the reader in the full title of the novel: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Although she never again dwells explicitly on the parallels between Victor and Prometheus, choosing instead to concentrate on the creature's Adamic pathos, her subtitle indicates that it is Victor's Promethean drive to create life in his makeshift Ingolstadt laboratory that serves as the agent of his downfall and misery, as Bloom rightly points out:
   The Prometheus of the ancients had been for the most part a
   spiritually reprehensible figure, though frequently a sympathetic
   one, in terms both of his dramatic situation and in his close
   alliance with mankind against the gods. But this alliance had been
   ruinous for man in most versions of the myth, and the Titan's
   benevolence toward humanity was hardly sufficient recompense for
   the alienation of man from heaven that he had brought about. Both
   sides of Titanism are evident in earlier Christian references to
   the story. The same Prometheus who is taken as an analogue of the
   crucified Christ is regarded also as a type of Lucifer, a son of
   light justly cast out by an offended heaven. (37)

This fascinating interplay between God's Adam and Victor's Prometheus must surely account for the vast influence Shelley's novel has had on the cultural imagination. Victor is not so much a "mad" scientist, but an obsessed one, whose obsessions not only lead to ruin, for both him and his family, but also serve as the foretype of his many successors. Bloom again: "It would not be unjust to characterize Victor Frankenstein, in his act of creation, as being momentarily a moral idiot, like so many who have done his work after him." (38)

Whether the issue is thermonuclear war, or electricity generated from nuclear power plants, or genetic manipulation leading to "designer babies," or worldwide industrialization prompting worries of anthropogenic climate change, something about technological fixes--even when the vast benefits of technology are taken into account and fully applauded--makes people anxious. (39) Although Hollywood's trope of the mad scientist implies the fault is located not in technology as such but in the dubious psyche of the technocrat, Shelley's novel knows better: the real problem comes not from scientists but from the Prometheanism of science. As the great Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed apropos just this point: "modern culture ... [can] be credited with the greatest advances in the understanding of nature and with the greatest confusion in the understanding of man. Perhaps this credit and debit are logically related to each other." (40)

These two trajectories--advances in science coupled with confusion about the nature of life, especially human life, and very much including the human soul--proceed in tandem, with progress in science simultaneously obscuring the very point of science. Prometheus stole knowledge, whereas true science accepts the givenness of the world. As Novalis asserted only two decades before Mary Shelley began working on her novel: "We cannot know anything on our own; all real knowledge must be given to us." (41)


(1.) Moreover, few of those reviews were favorable, and only that by Walter Scott was uniformly so. More typical was John Croker's judgment in the Quarterly Review: "Our readers will guess from this summary, what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work represents.... The dreams of insanity are embodied in the strong and striking language of the insane, and the author, notwithstanding the rationality of his preface, often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero." Reprinted in Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, The Norton Critical Edition, ed. J. Paul Hunter (New York: W. W Norton & Co., 1996), 189. Croker assumes a male author here because the novel was at first published anonymously.

(2.) This play obviously struck a chord, as Richard Holmes explains:
   The novel itself disappeared into temporary obscurity, and fewer
   than 500 copies were sold of the first edition. But it was made
   famous, if not notorious, in the 1820s by no less than five
   adaptations for the stage. These caused widespread controversy. The
   first [by Richard Brinsley Peake] was staged in London in July
   1823, at the English Opera House in The Strand. It was entitled
   portentously Presumption: Or The Fate of Frankenstein.... The part
   of "The Creature," which was cleverly and sinisterly left blank in
   the programme, made the actor T. P. Cooke famous (despite his
   terrible gout)--just as it later made Boris Karloff famous. Over
   the next four years there were fourteen separate productions,
   mounted in London, Bristol, Paris and New York.

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror f Science (NewYork: Vintage Books, 2010), 334.

(3.) In the novel the creature, with an eerie clairvoyance, seems to prophesy his later usurpation. After tracking down his creator, he says to him: "You are my creator, but I am your master--obey!" Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the 1818 text, ed. Marilyn Butler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 140; vol. 3. Because there are so many editions of this novel available, I shall be citing, besides the page numbers of this edition, also the volume and chapter numbers found in all editions.

(4.) The playwright Nick Dear is, to the best of my knowledge, the first dramatist to weave a more plausible scenario to explain the creature's remarkable literacy: he makes Monsieur de Lacey (the name of the nobleman) blind; and while his son Felix and daughter-in-law Agatha are out farming during the day, de Lacey can give the creature instruction under his personal tuition. He even motivates his charge to memorize large swaths of Milton's poetry (there is a lovely scene in the play, but not in the novel, in which the creature recites aloud to his mentor Milton's "The Nightingale"). See Nick Dear, Frankenstein: Based on the Novel by Mary Shelley (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 21-22.

(5.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 77-78; vol. 2, chap. 2.

(6.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 39; vol. i, chap. 4. Victor, whose account of his woes to Walton takes up most of the novel, repeats his bitter regret at regular intervals: "I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe" (Ibid., 69; vol. 2, chap. i). Say what you will of Victor, he is no mad scientist in the Hollywood mode, but rather deeply a deeply thoughtful, reflective, and (at the end) remorseful being, albeit ambivalently.

(7.) The great exception to this neglect would be Marilyn Butler in her introduction to the novel cited above and in her essay in the Norton Critical Edition, also cited above.

(8.) "It actually was a dark and stormy night. All through that chilly summer of 1816, ominous gray clouds had swept across the skies, bringing fierce thunderstorms to much of Europe and North America. Earlier in the year, astronomers had seen unusual sunspots through their telescopes.... In some part of Europe and New England, snow fell in July. It would long be remembered as a year when summer never came." Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler, The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (NewYork: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 3.

(9.) Hoobler, Monsters, 5.

(10.) To add to this complex intellectual genealogy, Coleridge (who cautiously endorsed Vitalism in his 1819 book Theory of Life) was a frequent visitor to the household of Mary's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (author of the first great manifesto of modern feminism, AVindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792).

(11.) Holmes, Age of Wonder, 309; internal quotations are from Abernethy's Enquiry into Mr. Hunter's Theory of Life, 38.

(12.) Volta showed that the movements of the dead frogs were not due to some "electric fluid" in the animal itself but arose solely from "the chemical action of the metal plates to which it was attached during experiments" (Holmes, Age of Wonder, 314). In other words, the source of the twitching was in the plates, and not lurking as a latent power in the dead bodies waiting to be catalyzed by the pins.

(13.) A process known as electrolysis, of which Davy was the pioneer: "Both calcium and magnesium were first isolated in more or less pure form by the English chemist Humphry Davy in 1808, using the technique of electrolysis--splitting compounds with electricity. The metals' avidity for oxygen is too great for them to be parted by the chemical reactions available to [Davy's French rival Antoine] Lavoisier, but electricity will do the job." Peter Ball, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 66-67.

(14.) Holmes, Age of Wonder, 309-10; the internal quote is from John Abernethy, Enquiry into Mr. Hunter's Theory of Life: Two Lectures, cited in Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (London: Palgrave, 2005), 43.

(15.) Davy's views had a direct influence on Shelley's novel, as Holmes notes: "Mary Shelley's ideas for the novel can be dated back remarkably early, to the year 1812, when her father William Godwin took her to hear Humphry Davy give his public lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution. She was then only fourteen. Her young Victor Frankenstein would also begin as an idealistic and dedicated medical student, inspired by the visionary Professor Waldman at Ingolstadt. Mary Shelley would eventually draw directly on the published text of Davy's famous 'Introductory Discourse,' in which he spoke of those future experiments in which man would 'interrogate Nature with Power ... as a master, active, with his own instruments." Holmes, Ages of Wonder, 325-26.

(16.) Holmes, Age of Wonder, 316: "Thelwall had become known for his wish to 'demystify' various forms of authority and received opinions, and the following year, in May 1794, he was to be prosecuted for political sedition, a charge which carried the death penalty" (Ibid.). He escaped that fate, partly because of the support of the medical establishment at the time.

(17.) Quoted in New Casebooks: Frankenstein, ed. Fred Bottling (London: Palgrave, 1995), 125; and Holmes, Age of Wonder, 319.

(18.) The flyer announcing Lawrence's Hunterian Lectures proclaimed: "In several parts of the second lecture the views correspond with those which have been entertained and published on the same subjects by Cuvier and Bichat." See Marilyn Butler, "Introduction," Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, xix, footnote ii. The reference to Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) is odd, because he was a convinced religionist, although perhaps Lawrence was hedging his bets here. But Cuvier did at least have this in common with Shelley's Victor Frankenstein: "Davy's French opposite number, the zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, conveyed the excitement of his work on fossils by coining a description of himself that would also do for Frankenstein, 'the magician of the charnel-house.'" Butler, ibid., xxxi. Cuvier also said that he worked with fossils "to restore the appearance of these long vanished beasts and relate them to the life of the present." Butler, ibid., xxxvi, footnote 27.

(19.) Holmes, Age of Wonder, 312.

(20.) Ibid., 312.

(21.) Ibid., 312-13; Lawrence's italics. The gravamen of Holmes's book is to show that the Romantic authors were far more open to science than their later reputation claimed. Granted, Wordsworth did say, "We murder to dissect," but he was in the minority. In this vastly informative (and entertaining) book, Holmes is scrupulously fair to all sides; but he tellingly demurs at Lawrence's sneering argument:

[Lawrence's] is a line of argument that has a long scientific footprint, and can be found being used to great rhetorical effect today by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Against this, it is interesting to read the defense of the necessary and dynamic notion of "mystery" by Humphry Davy in his lectures, or by the great twentieth-century American physicist Richard Feynman in The Meaning of It All (posthumously published in 1999). Though not a religious man, Feynman believed that science was driven by a continual dialogue between skeptical enquiry and the sense of inexplicable mystery, and that if either got the upper hand true science would be destroyed (Ibid., 313).

(22.) Mary Shelley, "Introduction" to Frankenstein, Third Edition (1831), reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition, 169-73; here, 171-72.

(23.) Mary Shelley, "Introduction," 172; italics added. Note the influence of the stage productions from the 1820s on her phrase "on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life." She had in fact attended an early performance of Presumption; and although she got no royalties and the changes in the plot were all made without her permission, she was quite taken with the performance: "But lo & behold! I found myself famous! ... It appears to excite a breathless excitement in the audience ... [I]n the early performance all the ladies fainted and hubbub ensued!" Quoted in Holmes, Age of Wonder, 335.

(24.) Her husband's role in the first draft has also not gone unnoticed. Since he was indeed a materialist, the reasoning goes, Percy must have tilted the novel toward his own ideological predilections. Recent research, however, has shown that he was responsible for only about ten percent of the text of the 1818 edition. See Mary Shelley (with

Percy Shelley), The Original Frankenstein, Two New Versions: Mary Shelley's Earliest Draft and Percy Shelley's Revised Text, ed. Charles E. Robinson (NewYork: Vintage Books, 2009). Moreover, as Bloom points out, Percy "was worried lest the novel be taken as a warning against the inevitable moral consequences of an unchecked experimental Prometheanism and scientific materialism." Bloom, "Afterword," 203; emphasis added.

(25.) Butler, "Introduction," xxxii.

(26.) Intergalactic travel in spaceships is impossible, given the distances and constraints on speed involved; but that does not stop writers of science fiction from inventing spacecraft that can travel faster than the speed of light, that being a requirement of the plot, even though science declares such speeds antecedently impossible.

(27.) Holmes, Age of Wonder, 327; Holmes's italics.

(28.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 106; vol. 2, chap. 7.

(29.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 105; vol. 2, chap. 7.

(30.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 138; vol. 3, chap. 3; emphasis added.

(31.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 140; vol. 3, chap. 4.

(32.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 179-80; vol. 3, chap. 7.

(33.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 186; vol. 3, chap. 7; emphasis added.

(34.) With the exception of one reference to Shelley's Introduction to the 1831 revision (at notes 22 and 23), all quotations from the novel have been taken exclusively from the 1818 edition, lest any doubt linger on that score. That said, it cannot really be maintained that the 1831 version represents a devolution from the original 1818 version. After all, Shelley was only eighteen when she began the novel, almost ensuring that the first draft would be, in Bloom's words, a "flawed novel with frequent clumsiness in its narrative and characterization" (Bloom, "Afterword," 202). Stylistically, the later revisions often improve on the original. In any event, both versions are theological in import from start to finish.

(35.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 105; vol. 2, chap. 7.

(36.) Shelley, Frankenstein, 105-06; vol. 2, chap. 7.

(37.) Bloom, "Afterword," 201.

(38.) Ibid., 205.

(39.) When dealing with the issue of "designer babies," the usual Hollywood dystopian scenario is premised on the plausible success in fashioning a master race (as in The Boys from Brazil or Gattica). But in fact, as Frankenstein warns, the real danger comes from a technological backfire. Recent research has shown, for example, increased rates of birth defects from genetic manipulation, in vitro fertilization, and medically assisted conception, all of which "were associated with a significantly increased rate of any birth defect." See: Michael J. Davies, MPH, PhD, Vivienne M. Moore, MPH, PhD, Kristyn J. Willson, BSc, Phillipa Van Essen, MPH, Kevin Priest, BSc, Heather Scott, B.Mgmt., Eric A. Haan, MB, BS, and Annabelle Chan, MB, BS, DPH, "Reproductive Technologies and the Risk of Birth Defects," New England Journal of Medicine vol. 366 (May 10, 2012): 1803-13.

(40.) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. I: Human Nature (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941/1964), 4-5.

(41.) Novalis, Das allgemeine Brouillon [section]902, in: Novalis: Schrften: Die Werke Friedrich von Hardenbergs (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1960), vol. 3: 441. Novalis is the pseudonym and universally recognized moniker for the German Romantic author Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801).
COPYRIGHT 2013 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Oakes, Edward T.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Previous Article:King Lear and the Catholic drama of three households and four loves.
Next Article:The promise of Newman's collegiate ideal.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters