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…