Contents Index

Metaphoric Matrix: Magnetism in Frankenstein

David Ketterer

In Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference, ed. Thomas J. Remington (Cedar Falls: Univ. of Northern Iowa Press, 1979), pp. 55-67

{55} In the interests of economy and dramatic directness, the encompassing story of Walton's polar exploration is usually omitted in the Frankenstein films. The famous Boris Karloff version opens with Frankenstein collecting his grisly anatomical bits and pieces. If the basic story can be related without the Walton subplot, it is not unreasonable to wonder about the aesthetic relevance of that aspect of Mary's book. Indeed, that most sensitive and exhaustive of Mary Shelley's critics, Jean de Palacio, cites with approval the view that Walton's letters are extraneous to Frankenstein's narrative.1 I believe that Palacio is wrong: the Walton envelope is essential to the book's overall unity and design.

It has often been observed that to a degree Walton is a double or reflection of Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein, he is in the grip of a scientific ambition which competes with the enjoyment of human relationships. Confronted with the consequences of Frankenstein's ambition, Walton is apparently persuaded to reverse his priorities. Walton is, then, very much not extraneous to Mary Shelley's moral argument. Furthermore, it might be argued that as the person for whom Frankenstein's career provides an object lesson, Walton is a stand-in for the reader, a connecting link whereby the real world might appear to complete the series of concentric circles formed by the literary world of the text.

But more to the point is the fact that Walton's specific goal allows Mary Shelley to expand metaphorically on the import of Frankenstein's creation. Walton's quest for the North Pole and Frankenstein's interest in animating dead flesh are symbolically equivalent. The connecting link here is electromagnetism. When Mary wrote Frankenstein the relationship between magnetism and electricity was appreciated but imperfectly understood. For example, mesmerism was called animal magnetism because it was thought to depend on universal fields of influence, electrical fluids of a vaguely biochemical nature. However, from the point of view of electro-magnetic theory, the essential point is that Walton hopes to "discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle," to ascertain "the secret of the magnet" (p. 16),2 while Frankenstein relies on electricity to jolt his creation into life. The {56} "secret of the magnet" is the secret of life itself. Any phallic connotations in Walton's phrase, "the wondrous power which attracts the needle," are entirely appropriate. The secret of life is also the secret of reality. Thus when Frankenstein reveals that "The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine" (p. 36), he is speaking about the same secret. And given the galvanizing role of "animal magnetism" in this story about a man who discovers the secret of life, the polar destination is inevitable.

Now is the time to emphasize what is perhaps the most potent aspect of the analogy I am pursuing between the creation of the book and the creation of the monster. If electricity animates the monster, it was talk of electricity that sparked Mary's creation. In her Introduction, she recalls listening to Byron and Shelley discuss "the principle of life" and "the experiments of Dr. Erasmus Darwin" (p. 8). Reportedly, Darwin "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion." The pasta, of course, did not come to life, but Mary goes on to speculate that "Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" (p. 9). In experimenting with the effects of electricity on the nervous systems of animals and human beings, Darwin was specifically indebted to Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) who gave his name to the galvanic electricity of which Mary speaks. It was Galvani's wife who, in 1786, drew his attention to the convulsive movements of a dead skinned frog. Accidentally, the exposed nerves in one of the frog's legs touched a scalpel which had in turn become charged by contact with an electrical apparatus.

How much knowledge did Mary have of such matters? She lived at a time when scientific interest in the phenomena of electricity was producing new theories and new applications at an accelerating rate. Between the invention of the Leyden bottle (1745-46) and Faraday's electromagnetic rotation theory (1831, the year in which the revised Frankenstein appeared) that provided the basis of the dynamo together with the motor and electrical industry, Franklin proved that lightning is electricity by experimenting with kites (1760), Galvani observed "animal electricity" (1786), Count Allessandro Volta (1745-1827) created the "Voltaic Pile," the first battery (1800), and Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) gave his acclaimed lecture "On the chemical effects of electricity" (1806). Mary records reading what may be either Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy or his Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry towards the end of October, 1816, that is, while she was writing what probably became Chapter 2 of Frankenstein.3

Shelley, of course, was fascinated by the subject of electricity since his time at Eton when he became interested in the galvanic battery, and no doubt Mary would have acquired a certain amount of knowledge from him. When, in 1810, Jefferson Hogg stumbled into Shelley's rooms in University College, he found a scene remarkably suggestive of Frankenstein's laboratory as cinematically imagined, even allowing for some exaggeration in his eventual description. From the confusion of books and instruments it appears

as if the young chemist, in order to analyse the mystery of creation had endeavoured first to re-construct the primeval chaos. The tables and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of {57} fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.
After a while liquid being treated in a retort "boiled over, adding fresh stains to the table, and rising in fumes with a most disagreeable odour."4 On another occasion, according to Hogg's recollection of their conversation, Shelley exclaimed: "What a mighty instrument would electricity be in the hands of him who knows how to wield it, in what manner to direct its omnipotent energies; . . . how many of the secrets of nature would such a stupendous force unlock."5 There can be no question that Shelley would have had much to contribute to the philosophical conversation that Mary recalls in her Introduction.

But was Shelley in conversation with Byron as Mary claims? James Rieger believes not. He follows the tentative suggestion of W. M. Rossetti in arguing that it was Polidori and not Byron who discussed "the principle of life" (p. 8) with Shelley.6 Since Mary's Journal is blank for the period from May 14, 1815, to July 20, 1816, Polidori's diary provides the best documentary record of the time when Frankenstein was conceived and his entry for June 15, 1816, notes that in the evening "Shelley and I had a conversation about principles, -- whether man was to be thought merely an instrument."7 I see no reason to conclude as Rieger does that "this is almost certainly the conversation alluded to by Mary Shelley" in her Introduction.8 That she refers to "the principle of life" as the subject of the conversation and that he speaks of "principles" counts for very little. The conversation that Polidori records involving the possibility that man is an instrument might well have been about fate and free will rather than the principles of galvanic electricity. Rieger wishes to suggest that the inspirational dream followed the discussion on the 15th of June and thus predated Byron's proposal of a ghost-story competition which Rieger believes occurred the following day. To make this case Rieger uses the dubious strategy of moving from provable inaccuracies in the Introduction -- Mary's summary of a story from Jean Baptiste Benoit Eyries' Fantasmagoriana (1812) -- to assumed ones.

There is no overpowering reason to doubt that the conversation Mary recalls took place between Shelley and Byron and that it transpired after the ghost-story competition was proposed. At the same time, even if Polidori was not present at that particular conversation, it is surely possible that he had at some point given either Byron or Shelley or both the benefit of his specialized knowledge on the subject of electricity. Not only was Polidori a first-rate, newly-qualified physician, but he had, in 1815, published a treatise on sleep-walking, a trance-like state which he and others attributed to the hypnotic effects of "animal magnetism." And during the last week of June, 1816, when Mary and Polidori (nursing a sprained ankle) were thrown into each other's company while Byron and Shelley toured Lac Leman, whether or not any indiscretions took place,9 it is surely possible that the topic of electrical influences might have arisen again. It seems likely, then, that Mary acquired at least a rudimentary scientific knowledge from both Shelley and Polidori as well as from her reading of Davy.

The matter is important because at issue is the degree to which Frankenstein transformed the nature of the gothic romance. To what extent might it be described retrospectively as science fiction? Is it, as R. Glynn Grylls claims, {58} "the first of the Scientific Romances"?10 Presumably the assumption is that had Frankenstein retained his early enthusiasm for Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus, and animated his creation by alchemical or supernatural means, the book would belong within traditional gothic confines. It is the assumption that Frankenstein employs contemporary science that invites the sense of a generic transfer into the realm of science fiction.

The Preface which Shelley wrote as the putative author of the original edition of Frankenstein opens with reference to this transfer:

The event on which this fiction is founded, has been supposed by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. [Preface 1]11
Possibly influenced by this Preface and certainly assuming Shelley to be the author of Frankenstein, Sir Walter Scott begins his review by describing the novel and its literary kin in a way that seems remarkably prescient of Wellsian science fiction. Frankenstein is included amongst those works where the marvellous is presented not for its own sake, as in the case of "Tom Thumb," but for its probable effect on human beings, as in the case of Gulliver's "Voyage to Brobdingnag": "we grant the extraordinary postulate which the author demands as the foundations of his narrative, only on condition of his deducing the consequences with logical precision."12 Superficially, there can be no question that there is indeed a science-fictional feel about Frankenstein, but I would hesitate before classifying it outright as science fiction and I would certainly not want to argue that Frankenstein is the first genuine such work. As befits a scientific rather than a supernatural genre, the soul of science fiction did not suddenly descend as Brian Aldiss would have it; rather contemporary science fiction is the result of successive stages of evolution. Frankenstein might be regarded as one evolutionary breakthrough.

The problem with regarding Frankenstein as straight science fiction is that, although the monster is apparently animated by scientific means, that science is treated by Mary Shelley in a metaphoric manner that owes more to the occult, superstitious "sciences" that Victor supposedly moves away from, than to any of the modern hard sciences that he apparently pursues. As will become clear, the scientific element in Frankenstein -- the imagistic use of magnetism and electricity -- suggests a well-nigh alchemical realm of transcendence. It serves the ends of sublimity. In fact, like most of the ostensibly exclusive oppositions in Frankenstein, that between alchemy and science is both real and illusory.

Frankenstein's enthusiasm for natural philosophy began when he picked up "a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa." In spite of his father's claim that such rubbish is a waste of time, Victor continues to study "the wild fancies" (p. 39) of Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. As John A. Dussinger suggests, Frankenstein's subsequent career can be regarded as a rebellion against the rationalistic world represented by his father.13 In support of this symbolic possibility, Dussinger resorts to the 1818 text which includes an {59} episode excised in the 1831 version in which Victor's father demonstrates that lightning is electricity by repeating Franklin's experiment with a kite. Presumably the episode went because of a related annotation that Mary Shelley addresses to Frankenstein in the copy she gave to Mrs. Thomas: "you said your family was not scientific."14 And so he did. In the 1831 version, after Frankenstein's specification that "My father was not scientific" (p. 40), "a man of great research in natural philosophy" (p. 4) is briefly introduced to provide the information previously put in the mouth of Victor's father. It would appear that Frankenstein's rebellion against the narrow rationalism of his father is not necessarily a rebellion against science. Similarly, at the university in Ingolstadt, Frankenstein reacts negatively to the closed mind of Professor Krempe who dismisses the Alchemists' works as "nonsense" (p. 45) but positively to Professor Waldman who argues that the expansive spirit of the ancient alchemists is not incompatible with the methodology of modern science.

Radu Florescu quotes with approval Rieger's conclusion that "it would be a mistake to call Frankenstein a pioneer work of science fiction. Its author knew something of Sir Humphrey Davy's chemistry, Erasmus Darwin's botany, and perhaps Galvani's physics, but little of this got into her book. Frankenstein's chemistry is switched-on magic, souped-up alchemy, the electrification of Agrippa and Paracelsus."15 However, eleven years earlier Rieger seems to have concluded differently. His article, "Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein," includes the assertion that "Frankenstein may be vulgarly termed science fiction."16 The truth is that generically Frankenstein occupies a place on the borders of science fiction and other forms of what I have elsewhere defined as apocalyptic literature.17 It "transcends" the genre of science fiction. In my terms, apocalyptic writers create other worlds which, by virtue of a reading convention, exist (on a literal level) in a credible relationship with the "real" world as commonly understood. This credibility depends upon overtures to either reason or a religious kind of faith. It will be apparent that this formulation includes both serious science fiction and such works as The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. To conceive of the category "apocalyptic literature" is to immediately appreciate how the structure and concerns of science fiction parallel, slide into, or may be embraced by, structures of transcendence. Frankenstein is very much a case in point and hence Rieger's contradictory statements. Frankenstein cannot be accounted for as science fiction with any degree of comprehensibility because, as Florescu states, "Mary's monster is more the child of the alchemists and occultists than of the scientists."18

The alchemical promise of immortality which obsesses Frankenstein seems to have at least intrigued Mary Shelley. Two of her tales and a speculative essay deal variously with the theme of extended life. In "The Mortal Immortal" (1834), the topic is linked directly to alchemy. Winzy, an assistant of Cornelius Agrippa, is writing his account three centuries after have drunk and then spilled his master's magical beverage. Immortality turns out to be a curse and despairingly Winzy looks at himself for signs of mortality and decay.

Two related pieces treat the kindred theme of reanimation. An unfinished tale, entitled by Charles E. Robinson "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman,"19 is silent about the process of revival but explicit about Valerius's depressive reaction to the declined condition of nineteenth-century Rome. In mood and theme this story of the last true Roman is clearly anticipative of Mary's The Last Man (1826). "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman" is Charles E. {60} Robinson's title for a piece he recently discovered that Mary wrote in response to a contemporary hoax.20 It was submitted for publication to the New Monthly Magazine in 1826 but not printed until 1863 when it appeared without a title in a volume of reminiscences by an editor of the New Monthly Magazine. Supposedly Dodsworth "died" in 1654 in circumstances that kept him in a frost-locked state of suspended animation. This detail plus the concluding paragraphs, in which Mary speculates on the possibilities if we all remembered previous lives, make the Dodsworth piece the most science-fictional of her writings. The only alchemical change relevant here is that the Dodsworth essay is a particularly clear indicator of the way in which certain hoaxical forms and incidents become transmuted into science fiction.21

Essentially Frankenstein was drawn to the alchemists because, in their ambitions, they transcended human limitations, they "sought immortality and power" (p. 46). Under their guidance, "I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention." Symbolically, the transformation of lead into gold with the old philosopher's stone betokens the transmutation of the alchemist from a physical to a presumably eternal spiritual state. To a degree, then, Frankenstein is posing a false dichotomy. No less than the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone promises immortality. The effect is to blur the equation between immortality and transcendence. A corresponding confusion characterizes Frankenstein's subsequent pronouncement: "Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (p. 40). In the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which is here seemingly rejected, wealth is equally an inferior object and the reward of eternal life renders man invulnerable to death per se. The creation of the monster is linked to something much grander -- life after death, the resurrection of the body: "Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. . . . I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time . . . renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (p. 54). Frankenstein seeks the power of God on the day of resurrection. No wonder that Chevalier's frontispiece for the 1831 edition, depicting a revitalized figure in a chapel-like laboratory,22 appears to owe as much to the biblical raising of Lazarus as to the details of Mary Shelley's text.

It should, in fact, be emphasized that, from the start, Frankenstein's ambitions are a paradoxical mix of the material and the spiritual: "It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in the highest sense, the physical secrets of the world" (p. 37). Here is a particularly brazen instance of that solipsistic dissolution of distinction which might be considered a stylistic trademark of Frankenstein. If the essential distinction between a perceiving consciousness and an exterior reality is lost, what other distinctions can hold? And so we are encouraged to understand the physical and the metaphysical not as opposites but as synonyms.

It is the function of the sublime ingredients in Frankenstein, especially the Mont Blanc area, to make this conjunction of the transcendent and the material, the secular and the sacred, metaphorically manifest. Mary's treatment of electricity and magnetism is among those sublime ingredients. Electricity is {61} to the Alps as magnetism is to the Arctic wastes. The lure of magnetism that leads Walton to the ends of the earth, to "a country of eternal light" (p. 16) is symbolically akin to the electrical discharges which cause the Alps in a stormy summer to be illuminated by lightning. In one dramatic scene, the lightning and Mont Blanc are procreatively wedded.

Returning to Geneva in response to the news of William's death, Frankenstein "was obliged to cross the lake in a boat to arrive at Plainpalais. During this short voyage I saw the lightning playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures" (p. 75). The ambiguity of "figures" is deliberate. Amidst this sublime tempest, "so beautiful yet terrific," making the lake from the land appear, like Milton's Hell, "a vast sheet of fire," one figure soon detaches itself: "I perceived in the gloom a figure which stole from behind a clump of trees near me. . . . A flash of lightning illuminated the object and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy demon to whom I had given life." Its appearance follows immediately on Frankenstein's almost exultant apostrophe to the storm: "William, dear angel! this is thy funeral, this thy dirge!" (p. 76). In the colloquial sense, it is the monster who is William's funeral and the effect of the syntax and the word "figures" is to equate the monster with the overall spectacle. This scene is a symbolic analogue to that in which Frankenstein infused "a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" (p. 57). Lightning electrifies the Alps and gives life to the sublime Alpine qualities that the monster might be said to personify. If, as seems likely, the time-lapse impression in the same scene of the monster's bounding movements from crag to crag echoes the action of the thunder in Byron's Childe Harold, an association between the monster and the elements is also to be inferred. Indeed, on a later occasion, the monster, after "running with the swiftness of lightning, plunged into the lake" (p. 196).

This scene is twice recreated making it an example, and perhaps the most important one, of a technique used three times that may be called metamorphic duplication. In the other two instances, however, a scene is recreated only once. The features of a Swiss landscape are duplicated in a German one. And on two occasions the monster is presented hovering over the body of prone Frankenstein. The basic purpose of this technique is to convey a sense of unity in a situation where separation is more apparent. In the case of the scene with which we are presently concerned, what is mirrored or prefigured first of all is Frankenstein's next meeting with his creation.

In this episode Frankenstein is in the immediate vicinity of Mont Blanc but otherwise events transpire as before. The same formulaic sequence applies: 1) an elevation of spirits; 2) a direct address to the spirit world; 3) the immediate appearance of the monster. Here is the context of the first encounter:

This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits; I clasped my hands, and exclaimed aloud, "William, dear angel! This is thy funeral, this thy dirge!" As I said these words, I perceived in the gloom a figure. (p. 76)
And here is the context of the second encounter:
{62} My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy; I exclaimed -- "Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life."

As I said this I suddenly beheld the figure of a man. . . (p. 98).

Not only is the succession of events the same but so are several of the actual words and phrases. This parallelism provides the clearest evidence that Mary Shelley wished to convey the notion that Frankenstein, the Alpine setting and the monster may be considered as a continuum. The experience of sublimity created within Frankenstein by the setting calls the monster into being. And since electricity is the source of life, it is surely not accidental that, at the end of the chapter before that in which Frankenstein meets his monster for the second time, he watches "the pallid lightning that played above Mont Blanc" (p. 95) before submitting to the oblivion of sleep. It may be recalled that the monster as originally described is somewhat pallid and unhealthy looking.

The situation in which an address by Frankenstein to the spirit world is answered immediately by the appearance of the monster is duplicated a second time shortly after the murder of Elizabeth and the death of his father. Standing by the graves (or what are referred to in the indented quotation above as the "narrow beds") of William, Elizabeth and his father, Frankenstein is conscious of "the spirits of the departed . . . I knelt on the grass, and kissed the earth, and with quivering lips exclaimed [this word is used in the two previous similar episodes], 'By the sacred earth on which I kneel, by the shades that wander near me . . . I swear . . . to pursue the daemon, who caused this misery until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict.'" The tangible earth and the intangible spirit world are here united. Becoming increasingly enraged (a heightening of depressed spirits if not exactly an elevation as in the two previous episodes, the imminent appearance of the monster is similarly associated with a change of mental state), Frankenstein continues: "And I call on you, spirits of the dead, and on you, wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work." Immediately, "I was answered through the stillness of night by a loud and fiendish laugh" which "the mountains re-echoed. . . ." Momentarily, "I felt as if all hell surrounded me" but the voice which whispers "close to my ear" (p. 202) he recognizes as that of his monster.

This scene juxtaposes four apparent realities -- Frankenstein's psyche, the natural world, the spirit world and the monster -- in a way that casts doubt upon their existence as separable entities. It should further be observed that an electrical storm is present here but completely internalized, created by the discharging neurons within Frankenstein's skull: "The furies possessed me as I concluded, and rage choked my utterance." Some evidence of this internal tempest is provided by the reference to the spirits (one is tempted to visualize them as lightning flashes) which "seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow which was felt but not seen, around the head of the mourner" (p. 202).

Frankenstein first became aware of the power of electricity -- its destructive rather than creative aspect -- when he was "about fifteen years old." During a violent thunderstorm, "I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak . . . and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump." The tree itself "was {63} not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed" (p. 41). Although this episode is in both the 1818 and the 1831 versions, the successive paragraphs differ. At the end of the new succession of paragraphs which Mary wrote for the 1831 edition, an equation is insinuated between the blasted tree and Frankenstein's fate. Although diverted from his alchemical obsessions for a while, "Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction" (p. 42). Like the tree, Frankenstein is to be "utterly destroyed." As Frankenstein later observes, "I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul" (p. 160); the same comparison applies when Frankenstein speaks of his creation daring "again to blast me" (p. 183) and of himself as "one blasted and miserable" (p. 190). Specifically, he has been "blasted" (p. 218) in his hopes of scientific distinction. The blasted tree is to Frankenstein as the Alps are to the monster. In both cases, a being and an aspect of the external environment are confused.

The destructive aspect of electricity and lightning manifests itself as fire and thereby the monster also learns about its dangerous nature. Attracted by the heat of an abandoned fire, the monster thrusts his hand into the live embers. The discovery of pain causes the monster to reflect, with puzzlement, "that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!" The Promethean flame is an ambiguous gift. Soon he realizes that "the fire gave light as well as heat" (p. 105) and pain. The words in which the monster projects his final immolation affirm that such diverse aspects may indeed by united: "Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds" (p. 223).23 And a region of deathly cold will have known, if only fleetingly, the warmth of life. The central apocalyptic images of fire and ice will have been reconciled. However, that apocalypse is not dramatized. The first use the monster actually makes of fire is purely destructive. Out of feelings of rejection he sets alight the De Lacey cottage at the symbolic moment that the moon's light sinks below the western horizon: "The wind fanned the fire, and the cottage was quickly enveloped by the flames, which clung to it, and licked it with their forked and destroying tongues" (p. 139). A convincing facsimile of an Edenic world is obliterated.

But it is, in fact, as an apocalyptic source of light and revelation that electricity and magnetism are primarily valued. Frankenstein's discovery of the secret of life is presented as a religious revelation: "from the midst of darkness a sudden light broke upon me -- a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that . . . I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated. . ." (p. 52). Apparently the secret of life is of a spiritual nature and its discovery involves the experience of transcendence: "Life and death appeared to me as ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world" (p. 54). Electricity will serve to animate dead matter not because of any scientific rationale but because its nature is spiritual. The idea was not uncommon and indeed Volney's Ruins of Empire, the book Felix uses to teach Safie English, contains an allusion to that mystical doctrine: "the more I consider what the ancients understood by ether or spirit, and what the Indians call akache, the stronger do I find the analogy between it and the electrical fluid."24

{64} It is as an embodiment of the spiritual power of electricity that Frankenstein repeatedly calls his creation a "daemon" not, as several modern texts would have it, a "demon."25 This corruption radically falsifies Mary's intention. The modern reader, seeing the word "demon" will understand it to mean some kind of fiend or evil being. As originally spelt and as Mary Shelley uses it, the word "daemon" simply means a spiritual power, irrespective of its moral nature. The point needs emphasizing that, in going beyond human bounds, the territory in which Frankenstein finds himself is at least metaphorically spiritual.

No less than Frankenstein, Walton is after the ultimate secrets of Heaven and Earth. And magnetism, no less than electricity, promises the secret of life, of animation. The pervasive use of such words as "animation" and "animated" stresses the fact that life is movement. Because the earth revolves around its polarized axis, magnetism might be said to give movement "animation -- to dead inert matter. The spiritual nature of Walton's ambitions is subtly emphasized. They cause his heart to glow "with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven." Walton's enthusiasm had been given a romantic colouring by his reading "those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven. I also became a poet, and lived for one year in a Paradise of my own creation" (p. 17). Similarly, Frankenstein recalls, "I trod heaven in my thoughts" (p. 211). It should be noted that Walton's first letter is addressed from St. Petersburg and his second from Archangel, place names which M. A. Goldberg realizes are "hardly fortuitous."26 They point to the spiritual realm of Frankenstein's and Walton's ambitions, and perhaps, if Frankenstein's subsequent comparison between himself and "the archangel who aspired to omnipotence" (p. 211) is judged relevant, to a "noble war in the sky" (p. 76), a confrontation of the ultimate forces of good and evil.

The light of life is an unearthly one and its source somewhere very like that place in the sky, a place beyond the rim of the world. Thus, "the ever-moving glacier" filled Frankenstein "with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy" (p. 97). Walton expects to find at the North Pole "a country of eternal light" (p. 16) where "the sun is forever visible" (p. 17). In the copy of Frankenstein Mary gave to Mrs. Thomas, she corrected her scientific mistake and substituted for the words "of eternal light" the explanatory statement "ruled by different laws and in which numerous circumstances enforce a belief that the aspect of nature differs essentially from any such thing of which we have any experience."27 However, in the 1831 edition the error is allowed to stand, presumably on the basis of its symbolic appropriateness. The "country of eternal light" is a sublime region where natures of essentially different aspect, like the monster's, rule. It is that region "rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, where white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings" (p. 94-95), and that region referred to by the monster as "another world" (p. 101) which the sun illumines as it sinks behind the snowy mountain precipices.

Compass directions are important in Frankenstein both as indicative of intellectual or emotional dominance and of the way in which that distinction is subtly inverted. At the pole where the compass points in all directions this process reaches its apotheosis.28 All intellectual bearings are lost, knowledge is shown to be contradictory and problematical. But if the source of magnetism throws human understanding into question, the possibility of a {65} transcendent knowledge is left open and magnetism itself affirms the power of love and emotion. All of Frankenstein may be comprehended in terms of the symbolism of magnetism or the ideas related to magnetism. Magnetism is that force of attraction which draws things together, including both human beings and the seemingly disparate parts of Mary Shelley's creation.


1. Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre: Contributions aux etudes shelleyennes (Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1969), p.350.

2. All parenthetical references within my text are to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).

3. See entries for October 28 and 29, 1816, Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944), pp.67, 73; and Laura E. Crouch, "Davy's A Discourse, Introductory to A Course of Lectures on Chemistry: A Possible Scientific Source of Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal, 27 (1978), 34-44.

4. The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: E. Moxon, 1858), I, 69-70.

5. Ibid., I, 51.

6. See "Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein," Studies in English Literature, 3 (Autumn 1963), 461-72; reprinted slightly revised in The Mutiny Within (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1974), pp.237-47; and W. M. Rossetti, ed., The Diary of Dr. John Polidori, 1816, Relating to Byron, Shelley, etc. (London: Elkin Mathews, 1911), p. 124.

7. The Diary of Dr. John Polidori, p. 123.

8. "Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein," in The Mutiny Within, p. 243.

9. Florescu speculates that Mary and Polidori had an affair. See In Search of Frankenstein (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), p. 116.

10. Mary Shelley: A Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 320. Desmond King-Hele calls Frankenstein the "first and most famous work of science fiction." See Erasmus Darwin (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 143. Brian Aldiss makes an extended case for this proposition in a chapter entitled "The Origins of the Species: Mary Shelley" in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1973), pp. 7-39.

11. Rieger's 1818 edition of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, p. 6.

12. Sir Walter Scott, "Remarks on Frankenstein. . .," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 2 (March 1818), 614.

13. "Kinship and Guilt in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Studies in the Novel, 8 (Spring 1976), 42.

14. Rieger's 1818 edition, p. 35, note 8.

15. Introduction to Rieger's 1818 edition, p. xxvii; quoted in In Search of Frankenstein, p. 235.

16. "Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein," in The Mutiny Within, p. 245.

17. See Ketterer, New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (New York: Doubleday Anchor Press; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), esp. pp. 3-25, 28-39.

18. In Search of Frankenstein, p. 234.

19. The tales is included in Charles Robinson, ed., Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 332-44.

20. See "Mary Shelley and the Roger Dodsworth Hoax," Keats-Shelley Journal, 24 (1975), 20-28. The piece is included in Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories, pp. 43-50.

21. On the connection between the literary hoax and science fiction see Ketterer, "Science Fiction and Allied Literature," Science-Fiction Studies, 3 (March 1976), 70.

22. The chapel analogy is observed by Small in Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and "Frankenstein" (London: Gollancz, 1972).

23. Something of Shelley's immolation seems also to be projected in this description.

24. Volney's statement is quoted by Florescu in In Search of Frankenstein, p. 217.

25. See, for example, the edition of Frankenstein published by the Cornhill Publishing Company of Boston and New York in 1922 and the more recent and widely circulated Signet edition.

26. "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal, 8 (Winter 1959), 29.

27. Rieger's 1818 edition, p. 10.

28. In relating this fact to Frankenstein, Rieger quotes a pertinent passage from Melville's Pierre (1852). See The Mutiny Within, p. 89.