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Mary Shelley’s published her pinacle novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. That same year, Dr. James Blundell carried out the first human blood transfusion, and the British chemist Luke Howard published The Climate of London— a thesis on atmospheric electricity and the causes of precipitation (Poulter). During Shelley’s lifetime, science had emerged from the shadows of the Enlightenment in order to harness the power of nature. No longer did scientists look to ancient interpreters; instead, advocates of this ‘New Science’ used their knowledge and observations to explore the brave new world.
Shelley’s novel makes use of the time’s current scientific ambitions as a warning to humanity to practice caution when attempting to control the natural world. The best warning that Shelley proffers is not against imitating God or creating life, but rather against neglecting the outcomes of experimentation and discovery. Shelley’s work exemplifies the effects of scientific hubris and the proponents of “New Science.”
As Shelley wrote Frankenstein, science was a cutting-edge practice— it did not have the notoriety that it has today.
Shelley maintained an interest in the scientific achievements that surrounded her, yet a part of her believed that scientific accomplishments came with a heavy price. Shelley used her talent and insight in Romantic prose to create the first story that merges art with science, founding the genre of science fiction.
Like many great poets of her time, Shelley recognizes and utilizes many of the emerging scientific discoveries in her fiction, giving her novel a sense of scientific plausibility.
Doctor Victor Frankenstein is very educated and widely read scientist. Victor’s use of a Newtonian analogy separates his intellect from that of modern philosophers; Victor remains discontent with modern philosophers and believes that their accomplishments are rather dismal and unsatisfying. ‘Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy’s apprehensions as tyros engaged in the same pursuit’ (Shelley). Victor’s dissatisfaction with the early scientists led Victor Frankenstein to cling to the intellectual ‘treasures known to few’ (Shelley). These treasures included the works of Agrippa and Paracelsus as well as the bold experiments of Albertus Magnus.
In a sense, Victor’s beliefs are a manifestation of Shelley’s own ideas on scientific advancement. In this time, electricity was commonplace knowledge, yet its true power eluded even the most accomplished scientists. Benjamin Franklin carried out experiments in the use and function of electricity. Franklin had just recently performed his famous experiment with the kite and lightning, and he meddled with the possible medical benefits of electricity.
Shelley, in addition, was familiar with the work of Luigi Galvani, a scientist experimenting with electricity and its impact on muscle tissue. Galvani observed twitching in a frog’s leg after it had been shocked with electricity, thus leading to Galvani’s theory of animal electricity. According to Galvani, the nervous system delivered animal electricity to muscle tissue (Kemp). His theory would serve as inspiration to Shelley’s Frankenstein. Electricity becomes the tool that gives life to the lifeless. After giving life to the lifeless, Victor says, ‘I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter’ (Shelley). This cause of generation and life is electricity, spurred by current scientific advancements in Shelley’s time.
Although never directly mentioned by Shelley, another ‘galvanist’ that surely influenced her novel is the Italian physicist and nephew of Luigi Galvani, Giovanni Aldini. Aldini attempted bringing a human corpse back to life with electricity. In 1803, the body of murderer George Foster was given to the Royal College of Surgeons for Aldini to experiment upon. Aldini applied conducting rods attached to a large battery to Foster’s body that resulted in the jaw quivering and ‘the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened’ (Pilkington).
Although Aldini was not able to bring Foster back to life, his notoriety and research made an impact on Shelley. She was careful not to disclose Victor Frankenstein’s “instruments of life;” however, it is apparent that electricity and galvanism played a part in the creature’s grotesque birth (Kemp). Shelley describes Victor’s inspiration and awe when ‘the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens” (Shelley). The ‘dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump’ (Shelley). The electricity of lightning had infused the ‘spark of life into the lifeless thing’ (Kemp). Aldini’s research led to various breakthroughs in electricity and medicine, and from his research, and that of his uncle, Luigi Galvani, electricity would serve ‘to treat paralysis, rheumatism, as a purgative and to revive drowned people’ (Pilkington).
Yet, in spite of these medical achievements, Shelley, through her novel, cautions one against scientific hubris. She instilled an everlasting fear upon humanity that man should not play the role of creator. According to Shelley, humanity has the potential to be ‘too big for its britches.’ She gives her novel the subtitle of ‘a Modern Prometheus:” as Prometheus brought man the knowledge and insight of fire, Dr. Frankenstein brings man the knowledge and insight of science. Zeus punished Prometheus with eternal torment (Cartwright) . Dr. Frankenstein suffers ‘eternal torment,’ at least torment until he dies in regards to the creation of his monster.
Shelley instills the notion upon the Zeitgeist that those who think they can improve the human race can also bring about its torment. This serves as her mantra to humanity. It does not matter how enlightened one becomes, if scientific hubris is not followed, one can end up bringing eternal torment upon all of civilization. Her stark message continues to serve society to proceed with caution, specifically in areas where man takes on the role of God. We have yet to discover whether scientific insights into cloning, genetically modified crops, nuclear testing, stem cell research, and the evolution of digital information will bring about benefits or eternal torments. Let us hope that Shelley’s lesson remains pertinent to us all.
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