In this novel written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), Victor Frankenstein (never called “Dr.” Frankenstein) leaves behind his idyllic childhood and Edenic Geneva, goes to university, studies the latest technologies and medical procedures, creates an unnamed monster,
STEAM provides us a launching point for an analysis of Frankenstein, for its action takes place in the 1790s, by which time James Watt (1736–1819) had radically improved the steam engine and in effect started the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the development of science and technology as well as medicine and machines in the nineteenth century.
Frankenstein presents us with a world full of shadows and darkness and terror: we frequently read these three words and their variants in the text of Frankenstein; we encounter the visuals of these three words in the many hundreds of stage and screen adaptations of this novel, often figured by the Boris Karloff neck-bolted monster; and we experience the shadows and darkness and terror when we read the many news reports about cloning, genetic engineering, Frankenfoods, and the most recently unearthed Frankenvirus announced in September 2015. All of these references derive their metaphoric origin from a teenager named Mary Godwin, who eloped to the Continent with the already married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) in late July 1814, when she was sixteen; began writing her novel about Victor and his creature in Geneva in mid-June 1816, when she was eighteen; married Percy in London in late December 1816 after his first wife, Harriet, committed suicide; finished her novel in April or May 1817, when she was nineteen; and published it on 1 January 1818, when she was twenty years old. And this STEAM edition of the novel is being prepared exactly two hundred years later in commemoration of the bicentennial of this young woman’s achievements.
It needs to be firmly stated here that Mary was not a Luddite opposed to new technologies. In fact, she was very interested in scientific matters, probably as a consequence of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and William Godwin (1756–1836). Wollstonecraft was a famous political philosopher and feminist who died eleven days after her daughter was born as Mary Godwin, but the daughter was nurtured by reading her mother’s works, including Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and the more famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued that elementary school girls of the period should perform the simple experiments in “natural philosophy” or science that boys of the same age performed. Mary also received a scientific education indirectly from her father, a famous novelist and political philosopher who was visited at home by many famous writers and intellectuals, including the scientist and inventor William Nicholson (1753–1815). As a young girl, Mary almost certainly met Nicholson during his many visits to Godwin up through February 1810, and she likely knew of his publications, which included The First Principles of Chemistry (1790; third edition, 1796) and his earlier student textbook Introduction to Natural Philosophy (2 vols., 1782; fifth edition, 1805). As William St. Clair has remarked in his authoritative biography of the Godwins and the Shelleys, William Godwin turned to Nicholson “for information on the latest theories in chemistry, physics, optics, biology, and the other natural sciences” and for “his advice on scientific method” ( 1991, 61).
When Mary met Percy Shelley, she learned that he had been encouraged in his scientific studies at Eton by Dr. James Lind (1736–1812), who was a member of the Lunar Society, a club that included scientists such as James Watt; the physician and poet and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), who published Zoonomia (1794–1801), a medical-philosophical treatise dealing with such matters as reproduction, development, sensation, and disease; and the dissenting minister and political activist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), who knew Benjamin Franklin and published The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments (1767).
During the two-year period before Mary began to write Frankenstein, she was almost certainly aware, by way of Percy, of the famous vitalist controversy on the definition of life between two prominent scientists, John Abernethy (1764–1831) and his pupil, William Lawrence (1783–1867), the two professors of anatomy and surgery at London’s Royal College of Surgeons.
Victor changed his opinion about modern science once he heard M. Waldman (also modeled on Percy Shelley’s kindly Etonian professor, Dr. Lind) deliver a lecture about the history of science, a lecture that most STEM students need to hear today:
M. Waldman entered shortly after. This professor was very unlike his colleague. He appeared about fifty years of age, but with an aspect expressive of the greatest benevolence. … He began his lecture by a recapitulation of the history of chemistry and the various improvements made by different men of learning, pronouncing with fervour the names of the most distinguished discoverers. He then took a cursory view of the present state of the science, and explained many of its elementary terms. After having made a few preparatory experiments, he concluded with a panegyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget:—
“The ancient teachers of this science,” said he, “promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.” (p. 30)
That same evening Victor seeks out Waldman in his own house and discovers that his new mentor is exceptionally kind and affable:
He heard with attention my little narration concerning my studies, and smiled at the names of Cornelius Agrippa, and Paracelsus, but without the contempt that M. Krempe had exhibited. He said, that “these were men to whose indefatigable zeal modern philosophers were indebted for most of the foundations of their knowledge. They had left to us, as an easier task, to give new names, and arrange in connected classifications, the facts which they in a great degree had been the instruments of bringing to light. The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.” … [I] added, that his lecture had removed my prejudices against modern chemists; and I, at the same time, requested his advice concerning the books I ought to procure. (pp. 30–31)
Before inviting Victor to use the machines in his laboratory, Waldman gives him a message that speaks across the decades to the STEM students of the twenty-first century:
“Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be made; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study; but at the same time I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a very sorry chemist, if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.” (p. 30)
Despite these endorsements of chemistry and natural philosophy in her novel, Mary realized that science could be abused, as is certainly evident in Victor’s reckless and selfish experiments, which do not account for their consequences. Even Victor is aware of the distinction between his selfish actions and his selfless actions. In his initial conversation with the scientific explorer Robert Walton, the narrator of this frame-tale novel,
Although Mary seems to be leaving the door open here for a future when selflessness and science will mutually serve each other, the novel’s basic argument is that science can be as destructive as it is constructive. That argument about the dangers of knowledge is emphasized when the creature “found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (p. 84, my italics).
Prometheus is not the only myth that Mary used to develop her theme. Even more noticeable are her many references to the Book of Genesis, with its Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The epigraph on the title page of the first edition of Frankenstein in 1818 is taken from John Milton’s famous epic poem Paradise Lost, one of the books from which the creature learns to read. He is a “quick study” when he reads that Adam and Eve, tempted by Satan to be like God in knowing good and evil, ate of the tree and were exiled from paradise. Knowledge led to sorrow and the fall of humankind from the sin of pride or hubris. The attentive reader will notice that Victor’s Edenic childhood in Geneva is lost when he goes off to university to study science: he laments the loss of his “native town” (p. 53) in the same way that the creature laments his loss after he learns the “godlike science” of speech (p. 91) and “the science of letters [reading]” (p. 97): “sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!” (p. 99).
The parallels between Victor’s and the creature’s statements about the dangers of knowledge draw our attention to the doppelgänger or double theme of this novel in which the physical ugliness of the creature reflects the psychological ugliness of his creator, Victor. As Victor himself expresses that relationship, “I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me” (p. 59). If man was made in God’s image, it is only appropriate that the creature would be made in the image of his psychologically disfigured creator, one whose head or reason has destroyed his heart or emotions in the persons of Elizabeth and Clerval: in the 1831 edition, Victor identifies his Elizabeth as the “living spirit of love” that he needs for psychic completion; and in both the 1818 and 1831 editions, Victor “saw the image of [his] former [and better] self” in Clerval (p. 134). A diagram helps to demonstrate the symbolic relations among all of the major characters as they externalize Victor’s internal conflict:
Once Victor destroys the female creature, it is inevitable that the creature himself will destroy Elizabeth and Clerval; in effect, the novel “ends” the night that Victor constructs his creature, and the rest of the plot merely literalizes and externalizes Victor’s self-destructive acts when he rules love out of his heart and, in the form of his monstrous self, kills Elizabeth and Clerval in what may be read as an act of suicide.
This reading of Frankenstein is but one among the many that this novel allows. Victor constructing his monstrous creature may also be read as political science or political philosophers creating the destructive French Revolution or the science of natural philosophy creating the dehumanizing Industrial Revolution. Yet another reading of the novel is that it is about the creating of the novel itself: just as Victor assembles bones and muscles and sinews and other body parts of his creature, so also Mary assembled the words and images and symbols and punctuation of her novel. To make this point, she used birthing metaphors in her introduction to the 1831 edition: she did “dilate upon, so very hideous an idea”: “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days” (pp. 189, 193, my italics).
Those happy days involved collaboration with Percy Shelley in 1816 and 1817, when the novel was written—and there is a lesson to STEM students in the facts of that collaboration, which is often essential for most scientific discovery. As I have outlined in other publications,
The chastened or creative imagination is at the heart of English romanticism, and its various definitions somehow involve or evolve from the famous and short thirteenth chapter of Biographia literaria (1817) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), in which he simply states that the “primary imagination [is] the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am” ( 1907, 202). Just as God ontologically created or fashioned this universe from chaotic matter, so also does the human mind or imagination epistemologically creates its own universe from the chaotic sensory data that a person receives from the external world. Man is not God (although Victor tries to be); rather, man is like unto God in each and every one of the creative perceptions that take place every second of a human being’s existence. What this means is that we never know the thing in itself—we know only our creative constructs of a thing. Percy Shelley put it most bluntly: “nothing exists but as it is perceived,” and “All things exist as they are perceived.”
Thus, Frankenstein and this introduction encourage STEM students to respect the humanities as offering a valid means of defining and even improving the world, much as science hopes to do. Frankenstein is certainly not the only work of art that addresses these issues, but it has become a metaphor for science that ignores human consequences and values. Every day some blog or newspaper or magazine or book or movie or television show alludes to Frankenstein in order to describe science gone bad. But these allusions to the evils of science can teach us much about our human condition. In fact, some recent Frankenstein-inspired “moving pictures” (the first Frankenstein film was produced in 1910 by the inventor Thomas Edison) actually show a nonhuman being gaining respect for human life and human values. Ignoring the usual suspects among the many “Frankenstein” movies, including Mel Brooks’s wonderful Young Frankenstein (1974),
Most people do not realize that T-2 is an homage to Mary and her novel, but the viewer is reminded of Frankenstein by the opening electric flashes as the nonhuman android Arnold Schwarzenegger materializes, comes back from the future, and reveals that he has apparently developed the equivalent of a heart that can feel for humanity. Even more allusive is his selfless destruction of the computer chip that conveniently saves Los Angeles and the world from the thermonuclear destruction that would occur on August 29, 1997, the day before Mary’s two hundredth birthday—so that we could celebrate her bicentennial without holding her responsible for starting the scientific revolution that eventually led to the computer chip that led to the microprocessor that led to Skynet that led to the destruction of billions of lives.
Less allusive but equally compelling is the plot of Person of Interest, in which computer programmer, engineering genius, and tech billionaire Harold Finch (he also goes by other bird names) creates an AI machine for the government to prevent terrorist attacks. At the same time that the government abuses the power of this all-seeing and all-hearing AI machine, Finch and his associates use it to predict and prevent local murders and other acts of nonterrorist violence. The amoral Machine, which electronically monitors every cell phone and email message and surveillance camera in the world to detect terrorism, teaches itself and apparently develops, as the Terminator did, compassion for the local victims of violence. As it is pursued by various antagonists and attacked by a competitor machine called Samaritan, it hides itself in the national power grid. At the end of season 4, as Samaritan shuts down the power grid starting on the West Coast, the Machine retreats to a large electrical substation in Brooklyn until Finch and associates download enough of the computer code into a hard drive that will be carried away in a suitcase—in hopes of saving the world from Samaritan’s machinations (as it were). Electricity, technology, and the “Frankenstein” myth seem to come full circle at this moment of the plot: from Benjamin Franklin’s kites and electrical storms to Joseph Priestley’s history of electricity that led to late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century scientific experiments, to Frankenstein, to Hollywood adaptations of Frankenstein that use lightning to power the electrical machines that generate the creature, and to the most recent adaptations that feature computers and codes and algorithms and hard drives and a final apocalyptic machine on which the fate of the world depends.