The suggestion that Mary Shelley sought primarily to warn of the perils of scientific meddling is insulting to a complex and ambiguous textby Philip Ball / January 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published 200 years ago, has become the exemplar of art-science crossover work. In light of the anniversary, the pages of literary supplements are full of praise for, and marvel at, the enduring power of this book written by a woman still in her teens, an accomplishment done ample justice by Fiona Sampson’s new biography In Search of Mary Shelley.
But the science press is having a field day too. Science magazine has published a special issue exploring the book’s legacy for science and society; the MIT Press last year published a new edition of the novel “annotated for scientists and engineers,” including another collection of essays on what Frankenstein means for scientific ethics and responsibilities today. And science writer Kathryn Harkup’s new book Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein does an excellent job of reviewing the scientific advances and debates of the early nineteenth century that informed the precocious author’s extraordinary creation.
You can see why the scientists are all over it. This story of a young man who makes a living being from dead body parts scavenged from “vaults and charnel houses,” only to bring calamity on his family, friends and lover when the creature runs amok, is commonly seen today as a warning about what happens when hubristic scientists fail to think through or take responsibility for what they invent and create.
There are, however, some inconvenient facts for this reading.
First, the actual science in the book is extremely scanty, and that involved in the actual reanimation of Victor Frankenstein’s assemblage of body parts is left entirely unspecified. Second, Frankenstein himself bears little resemblance to a practising scientist even in the nineteenth century; he comes from an older tradition of alchemy and occult science. Third, that the novel bore a message for the ethics of science was a conclusion no one apparently drew in the nineteenth century.
The contemporaneous reviews made no mention of it, regarding the book instead as a peculiar (and to some, repulsive) work of romantic fiction, akin to the kind of Gothic novels lampooned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, published in the same year as Frankenstein.
All this is a little peculiar in itself, until you recognise that when we call Frankenstein a myth we mean precisely that it has become detached from its source text and taken a life of its own. We have shaped from it the stories that we need.
Everyone seems slightly in denial about the book itself. The literary world—having long dismissed Frankenstein as either poorly written (it is something of a mess in places), or a mere genre work (calling it “the first work of science fiction” is a double-edged compliment), or a work more channelled than composed by its author (or probably owing as much to her husband)—is only now finally conceding that a book with so profound a cultural impact must after all have something going for it. I’m not sure all literary critics have, however, yet taken the final step of admitting that Austen was wrong to imply, in Northanger Abbey, that truly fine literature must examine the niceties of human character in realist mode (what we now call literary fiction), and that the fantastical mode is infra dig.
“That the novel bore a message for the ethics of science was a conclusion no one apparently drew in the nineteenth century”
Scientists, meanwhile, seem oddly attached to the notion that Frankenstein is a tale of scientific hubris. In part this may be because they need a whipping boy for uninformed public disapproval of their research, as when the pioneer of in vitro fertilisation and 2010 medicine Nobel laureate Robert Edwards complained that “Whatever today’s embryologists may do, Frankenstein or Faust or Jekyll will have foreshadowed, looming over every biological debate.” And not without cause: when Edwards and his colleague Patrick Steptoe first reported the fertilisation of a human egg in a “test tube,” the New York Times reported it under the headline “The Frankenstein myth becomes reality.”
But while Victor Frankenstein (never a “Dr,” please) became the archetype of the mad scientist as the events of the twentieth century—especially in the nuclear age—soured what had previously been an optimistic perception of science’s effects on society, Mary Shelley never painted such a caricature.
Indeed, even though some modern Frankenstein critics, such as Shelley’s earlier biographer Anne Mellor, instruct us to deplore Victor as an example of the over-reaching (male) scientist perverting a virtuous (female) Nature, Shelley’s portrayal is far more ambivalent. Victor is never less than noble in the eyes of the friends and family he has rejected and in some cases doomed. In his death scenes with the Arctic explorer Robert Walton, he is more a tragic hero than a wicked meddler.
But then, pretty much everything about Frankenstein is ambivalent, not least Shelley’s attitude to science. Professor Waldman of Ingolstadt University, who guides Frankenstein sympathetically away from his early infatuation with the old alchemists, is an inspiring and virtuous figure evidently based on Humphry Davy, a friend of Shelley’s father William Godwin. Frankenstein goes off the rails not because he inquires too deeply or asks forbidden questions but because he neglects his social connections and obligations.
The scene in which Frankenstein builds his creature, injects the “spark of life,” and only then realises that he has done something horrible—and runs off, falls into a faint, and kind of ignores what he has just left behind him—is in one sense psychologically absurd. Only within the dream-like structure of the mythic literary mode does it become permissible.
Given that Shelley is so elusive about Victor’s modus operandi, it’s remarkable how much allusion she packs in the issues preoccupying the “scientists” of her day. (The word itself wasn’t coined until 1834.) When Percy Shelley wrote in the preface of the first edition that “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr [Erasmus] Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence,” he was referring to the debate about “the nature of the principle of life,” as Mary herself called it in her preface to the revised 1831 edition.
“The showers of sparks that set Boris Karloff twitching in 1931 owe more to Hollywood’s need for visual extravaganza than to Shelley’s novel”
Could life be produced from inanimate matter, or did it contain some non-corporeal ingredient that gave it animation (the doctrine sometimes called vitalism)? That question remained contentious throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century, particularly in the dispute between Percy Shelley’s personal physician William Lawrence and his former mentor John Abernethy. After the first edition was published, Lawrence’s “materialist” position became seen as tantamount to atheism, and he was forced to retract to avoid expulsion from the Royal College of Surgeons. Such was Lawrence’s notoriety that Shelley may have changed the tone of the 1831 edition partly to distance herself from his views, making Frankenstein more remorseful and hinting at the impiety of what, in the first edition, was a decidedly secular act.
What, anyway, was this “secret” that Victor so implausibly discovered as a student at Ingolstadt and which enabled him to animate his hideous creature? As he tells his tale to Walton, he declines to say: “I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery.” You might regard this coyness as infuriating, but in retrospect it was a smart move—since any detailed account of how to make life in the early nineteenth century would, from today’s perspective, surely look absurdly naive. And after all, for the purposes of the story those details don’t matter a fig.
As for the showers of sparks that set Boris Karloff twitching in the 1931 film Frankenstein: these owe more to Hollywood’s need for visual extravaganza than to Shelley’s novel. But there is some justification for invoking electricity as the magic ingredient. In the 1831 preface she says “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things.”
Here she is referring to the experiments by the Italian physician Luigi Galvani in the 1780s, who used static electricity stored in “Leyden jars” (a kind of early capacitor) to induce jerky movements in the amputated legs of frogs. Even more suggestive were the experiments of Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini, who performed the same trick with severed bulls’ heads and even, on one notorious occasion in 1803, on the body of a freshly hanged criminal. Harkup explains all this clearly and eloquently.
Even the 1818 original edition hints at a role for electricity. The fifteen-year-old Victor recounts seeing an oak being blasted by lightning in the Jura mountains. And on that “dreary night of November” he says that he “infuse[d] a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feel,” perhaps alluding to the idea current at the time that electricity was a kind of fluid that could be infused like a drug.
Although the figure of a “modern Prometheus” might seem today to speak most clearly to the Strangelovian nuclear scientist, the “science of Frankenstein” is now surely biology. When journalists reach for the lazy shorthand of the “Franken” label, it is to warn us about attempts to intervene in life, whether that’s with genetically modified organisms or new reproductive technologies such as cloning and mitochondrial transplants (the so-called “three-parent babies,” itself a term concocted to imply some unnatural Frankensteinian perversion of nature).
There has been a lot of searching in Shelley’s text for crumbs of wisdom about how we should think on these things, but the suggestion that Frankenstein warns about the perils of meddling in matters of life is little short of insulting to her complex and ambiguous text. We would do better, in trying to understand public perceptions and anxieties about stem-cell technologies, tissue engineering and assisted conception, to examine the myth that the book begat. Boris Karloff’s mute, lumbering creature and the replicants of Blade Runner are Frankenstein’s children, and they are better placed to act as mirrors for our dark fantasies of life and its creation.