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Frankenstein and the Soul

Martin Willis

Essays in Criticism, 45:1 (Jan. 1995), 24-35

{24} In 1831, some time after the deaths of Shelley and Byron, Mary Shelley published the short story 'Transformation' in The Keepsake.1 Although it retains certain echoes of Frankenstein, the later story proves far less enigmatic in its concerns over the existence or nature of the soul. Comparisons can be made between Victor Frankenstein's 'hideous phantasm' (p. 9)2 and the 'misshapen dwarf' (p. 174) with 'squinting eyes, distorted features, and body deformed' (p. 174), but the latter reveals a greatly enhanced empiricism in his dealings with the spiritual. Guido -- the belatedly romantic hero -- is persuaded to exchange his soul for a casket of treasure, an operation which requires intermingling the blood of both giver and receiver in order to transmit the soul from one to another in ethereal transfusion. The tale follows conventional late Gothic sensationalism by concluding with Guido's admirable recapture of his own soul in a clever parody of epic mortal combat:
In the midst of my frenzy there was much calculation: fall I might, and so that he did not survive, I cared not for the death-blow I might deal against myself. While still, therefore, he thought I paused, and while I saw the villainous resolve to take advantage of my hesitation, in the sudden thrust he made at me, I threw myself on his sword, and at the same moment plunged my dagger, with a true, desperate aim, in his side. We fell together, rolling over each other, and the tide of blood that flowed from the gaping wound of each mingled on the grass. (p. 184)
Providing the soul with such physicality marks an important deviation for Mary Shelley. The association of the life-force with the life-blood, in this context, involves a tangibility that lies uncomfortably with the romantic philosophies she had {25} previously championed. However, this apparent desertion does not go as far as to embrace the opposing materialist camp. By asserting that the soul embodies one's entire personality and individuality and forcefully rejecting the materialist 'man as machine' hypothesis, Mary Shelley leaves herself in a void: sceptical of the rationality of a romantic transcendental ideal yet antagonistic of materialist reductionism.

Although written in the period of her life when Mary Shelley was most enamoured by romantic philosophy, Frankenstein faces some of the same problems. While intending to emphasize the necessary deference to nature (inspired by romanticism) that empirical science lacked, she found her portrayal of Victor's artificial human complicated by the materialism of his genesis. Surely the morality of such a creature, as well as the internal organisation of consciousness, should exhibit an adherence to the philosophy that brought him into creation? The point of most contention is again the existence of the soul. Frankenstein displays this existence much less readily than 'Transformation'. Indeed the entire novel is peculiarly reticent over the practical origins of the monster's psyche. If Mary Shelley's mechanistic creation of the monster did not allow for a soul, it would be inconsistent with her later fiction, which further debases romanticism but still retains both an outward and inward representation of spirit.

The question has been largely disregarded by recent critics, who accept a priori the humanity of the creature (at least as far as his anatomy and consciousness are concerned). Only Maurice Hindle briefly addresses the soullessness of Frankenstein and his creature, arguing that our belief in the creature's lack of soul is a response to the 'Frankenstein myth' rather than to the novel itself. He concludes that

The 1818 edition of Frankenstein has a passage explicitly referring to electricity as a 'fluid'. This suggests that Frankenstein's cosmology does originally contain the notion of an immaterial, but a 'sensing' human soul, one that shares its life-nature with electricity.3
Although this surmise is basically correct, Hindle does not seem to appreciate the great divergence of belief among con- {26} temporary scientists as to the nature of electricity. Victor Frankenstein's simple reference to the electrical fluid in no way allows for the instantaneous leap of logic from a liquid conception of electricity to a similarly formed human soul, that Hindle apparently makes.

There is, therefore, a great deal more to the construction of the monster's psyche than critics generally suppose in Frankenstein. The argument is not so much between new science and gothic mysticism as between conflicting views of romanticism and materialism. The hypotheses of these two philosophies engage in a battle, on the one hand, to resurrect the soul of man and, on the other, to condemn it. Mary Shelley understood the materialist philosophers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries well enough to present both their views and those of the romantics subtly and objectively.

By the time Victor Frankenstein completes his undergraduate training at Ingolstadt University his scientific pragmatism has blotted out all trace of the romantic outlook of his youth. Even the blatantly materialistic M. Krempe, whom Victor at first despises, imparts 'a great deal of sound sense and real information' (p. 49). The rationalism with which Victor pursues nature 'in her hiding-places' (p. 47) is reflected in his account of the research he has undertaken to discover 'the cause of generation and life' (p. 51). It was a combination of observation -- '[I was] forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses' (p. 50) -- and the sort of experiment -- '[I] tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay' (p. 53) -- championed by the chemist Oersted, who often disparaged romantic scientists such as Friedrich Schelling for their disregard of the appropriate procedures. Already, the conception of the monster is overshadowed by empiricist techniques, yet the gross materialism of his actual construction far outweighs this. Victor recreates each stage of his hideous task with much descriptive power:

I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by {27} a gallery and a staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials . . . His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (pp. 53-56)
From the basic skeleton through the 'muscles and arteries' to the facial complexion a picture is built up of a straining mass of sepulchral material barely held together. The monster personifies scientific materialism in the most literal sense, his appearance tangibly paralleling the dominant philosophical beliefs of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, who recognises such metaphorical connections in the dream sequence which follows his animation of the creature. Slumbering, he sees 'Elizabeth, in the bloom of health' (p. 57) becoming 'livid with the hue of death' (p. 57) as he 'imprinted the first kiss on her lips' (p. 57), thus associating his own materialist touch with that of the graveyard constituents from which the monster had been assembled.

When the full horror of the monster's countenance is revealed, it is hardly surprising to find him reviled by those members of society whose path he crosses. However, although his physiognomy would certainly inspire fear or loathing, the extreme reaction of all whom he encounters is surely expressive of some other indication of his inhumanity. There is a parallel here with E. T. A. Hoffmann's short story 'The Sandman,'4 written at almost the same time as Frankenstein and in a spirit of romanticism which would have appealed to Mary Shelley and her circle. Olympia -- later discovered to be an automaton -- is distrusted by the gathered company who find her 'rather weird', as though she were 'playing the part of a human being [and] there really were something hidden {28} behind all of this' (p. 302). In Frankenstein a comparable situation is adapted to suit the more secularly horrific strain of the narrative: the revulsion inspired by the monster is due to an innate sense of his difference, his manifestation of the alien, rather than an admittedly indisputable physical repugnance.

Certainly -- considering the detailed summary of the monster's construction -- it must be more than physical attributes which fully account for the inhuman 'otherness' which so shocks his antagonists (his body-parts are, after all, human ones). In view of the materialist philosophy which courses symbolically through each vein and artery of his newly-created body we need to ask whether his inhumanity stems from the absence of a soul. If so, this in turn would indicate his profane creation by man as opposed to a divine creation by God, and the mastery of a materialist nature over Mary Shelley's romantic background. The validity of this narrative approach is buttressed by the theories of several contemporary philosophers, among them Charles Bonnet, whose 1754 monograph Essai de Psychologie was later quoted by T. H. Huxley in his essay 'On The Hypothesis That Animals Are Automata'5: 'It is not to be denied that Supreme Power could create an automaton which should exactly imitate all the external actions of man.' (p. 247). Victor's God-like powers of creation and the fake religiosity he shows in such sentiments as 'a new species would bless me as its creator and source' [1.3.6] reveals a correlation with Bonnet's 'Supreme Power' and associates the monster with the automaton which imitates 'all the external actions of man', providing, again, a strong parallel with Hoffmann's Olympia.

These mechanistic connotations can also be seen in the monster's early life and subsequent education. Samuel Holmes Vasbinder has shown that Mary Shelley utilised the work of the empirical materialist David Hartley, whose Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty and His Expectations (1749/1791) agrees perfectly with the stages of enlightenment through which the monster progresses. Hartley's philosophy (in conjunction with Condillac's to whom Vasbinder also pays close attention), is basically dualistic in nature, and thoroughly opposed by the cosmic harmony of romantic thought which {29} finds all natural phenomena inextricably linked. Such dualism has no place for the existence of a soul, further rendering the monster a child of materialism devoid of any romantic influence and without moral value or spirit.6

These arguments all emphasise the soullessness of Victor's creation, but the real battle does not take place in the monster's early life or his abortive attempts at human interaction but at the precise moment of his birth -- that vital turning-point between inertia and animation. Victor describes it as follows:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eyes of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (p. 56)
Almost all of Mary Shelley's commentators agree that Victor Frankenstein employs a form of electricity to bring his creation to life and all the evidence, even in the short excerpt here quoted, points towards such a conclusion: Victor's hope of 'infus[ing] a spark of being' into the lifeless body in his workshop and finding his success heralded by 'a convulsive motion [which] agitated its limbs' proves, at the very least, the author's appropriation of electrical rhetoric. But if the application of electricity is taken for granted what are the theoretical implications as far as the existence of the soul is concerned?

Post-Newtonian scientists, beginning with the accepted theory that electricity was some form of effluvia or fluid, continued to work from this hypothesis throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The discovery of the Leyden jar in 1745 proved how powerful a force electricity could be but it continued to be described as fluidic; when the Leyden jar was fully charged any excess -- which sparked at earthed points -- was known as the overflow. Despite periodic {30} refutations of this belief in the later eighteenth century, the survival of the fluid theory goes some way to explaining the continuing symbolisation of electricity as a physical, tangible phenomenon. Benjamin Franklin successfully proved the synonymity of thunder clouds with the Leyden jar and, as Ritterbush reveals, 'this discovery of atmospheric electricity inspired speculation that all kinds of natural phenomena were caused by electricity'.7 Disease was soon heralded as one of these 'natural phenomena' as doctors began to reveal the healing properties that a series of electric shocks had on certain patients. While it is likely that many of the cures were psychosomatic a proportion of them could only have owed their success to the powers of electricity. Such a discovery quickly led to the hypothesis that the recorded improvements were due to lost internal electricity being replaced by electrical therapy. To many this was an acceptance of electricity as 'the cause of life' (p. 47).

The movement of scientific thought in this direction takes us closer to Frankenstein and the creation of the monster, whose 'cause of life' is the introduction of an animating electrical shock. But what actual properties did this internalised electricity relay to the recipient? Once again, the materialists and romanticists expressed divergent views, either asserting or denying that the vitalism of electrical power is the basis not only of mechanistic animation but also of a spiritual psyche. Whether or not the monster (with the aid of Victor's electrical discoveries) was imbued with a conscious soul is at the centre of the narrative.

As we have seen, there is much evidence that he was not, but the question ultimately depends on the monster's post-animation relationships, when his forced alienation from his own origins as well as society subdues his generic design and turns him against Victor, the divine creator who formed him in his own image. The monster's rage at this double abandonment (by Victor and society) leads him to treat others as they themselves have treated him. This aligns him more closely with the romantics than might have been expected, as Morse Peckham shows: 'to impose one's will upon others . . . is to treat them as mere instruments for realising the will, to treat them as {31} objects, to treat them, in short, as society treats the alienated romantic'.8 The monster's similarity to Victor Frankenstein has often been noted, and Victor, typically romantic in his boyhood, slowly alienates himself and becomes immersed in scientific materialism. The monster parallels this metamorphosis; his initial romantic animation is slowly eroded by the materialism of his construction, alienating him from the rest of humanity and transforming him into nothing more than a metaphor of the rampant scientific hubris seen in Victor Frankenstein himself.9 It thus becomes obvious that the processes of electricity that gave the monster life are the agents of a distinctly romantic hypothesis entirely opposed to the severely mechanistic theories of certain materialist philosophers. How, then, do romantic notions of the properties of electricity alter the materialist position which the monster has assumed? And will such notions provide his only missing attribute -- a Soul?

A full understanding of the romantic position concerning the forces of electricity needs to take into account the fact that empirical research, though uncommon in the science of the early romantics (as exemplified by Schelling's speculations in naturphilosophie), was greatly involved in proving their hypotheses. In fact literary romanticism had always enjoyed a more fulfilling partnership with empiricist discoveries than is often assumed, as Ritterbush recognises: 'A bald statement that the Romantic poets were opposed to science, whatever it might mean, would oversimplify their reactions and neglect their indebtedness to the naturalists for beliefs about external nature' (p. 200). The endeavours of romantic philosophers to include electricity in a system of thought that was built on the beliefs of cosmic harmony, of the solitary force through which all nature was expressed, were aided by the research of such chemists as Humphry Davy, whose experiments proved the existence of many links between base chemicals and electrical molecular construction. Such discoveries became extremely important for the romantic scientist when the connection of magnetic polarity and electrical power was established by Oersted's uncovering of electromagnetism in the early 1820's. It is on Davy, however, that one must concentrate in {32} Frankenstein. His portrayal in the novel (as the Ingolstadt Professor M. Waldman) is the most positive image of science in the narrative, indicating Mary Shelley's great respect for his work.10 Davy's association with the vitalist movement (who believed the source of vital power lay within electricity), and his work on apparent harmonies between natural forces, made him revered in romantic circles. What seemed to them to be the over-riding proof of their speculations into the natural correspondancy of electric power with other natural forces led them to an almost spiritual confidence in the importance of electricity, whose role as the lynchpin of this theory seemed deserving of such respect. Ritterbush argues this position historically: 'The inheritance of a harmonious system of forces was made to order for electrical speculation. This relationship between the speculative framework and the newly discovered cosmic force accounts for the extravagance of belief' (p. 48). Romanticism, then, seized upon electricity's apparent congruity with those forces which were already believed to be distinct parts of a harmonious whole. This, allied to the enormous power of which electrical energy was capable (and here one is reminded of the stroke of lightning which shatters a tree as Victor Frankenstein looks on11), gave electricity a position from which it appeared capable of not only providing the animating principle of organic life but also of spiritual life. In the romantic system of cosmic euphony, there could be no dualism, no disparity between mind and body. In giving life -- romantic dogma asserts -- electricity also gave a soul.

To some extent Mary Shelley's narrative defends this view. While throughout his reign of terror over Victor's family and friends the monster reveals very little in the way of moral values (of which the soul has traditionally been the guardian), some residual spiritual qualities (from which he has been so long alienated) do once again appear by the novel's end:

'"But soon," he [the monster] cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm, "I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the {33} agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell."' (p. 215, my italics)
The speech acts as an epitaph and, despite the rhetoric, is traditionally Christian in value. The monster allows death to remove all his bodily ills before consigning his remains to the sea, but this does not conclude his self-destruction as it surely would from a materialist point of view. There remains a concern over the 'spirit' -- the monster's soul -- which only here, in the final dialogue of the novel, is expressed so openly. Indeed this final line seems far more than a confirmation of the monster's soul: his belief that 'if it thinks, it will not surely think thus' expresses a desire on his part to refute the materialism of which he has been the most powerful narrative symbol. The 'funeral pile', in this scenario, becomes a purifying fire, destroying (both bodily and psychologically) the extremes of materialistic scientific endeavour and allowing, one is encouraged to believe, the romantic spirit to 'sleep in peace'.

Ultimately, therefore, Mary Shelley contrives a finale which involves both the debasement of reductionist philosophies and the transcendence of romanticism. These two distinct ideologies have fought throughout the novel over Victor Frankenstein's 'daemon' (pp. 73, 161, 162), the unnamed monster who wears, at various points in the narrative, the mantle of both factions. That romanticism comes to be a form of salvation could have been anticipated. Mary Shelley's personal experience is deeply-rooted in Frankenstein, the most idiosyncratic of her many works of fiction.12 Nevertheless the text is as much a fictional representation of historical debate as it is of personal discovery. In the process of evoking the conflict of philosophies concerning the monster, Mary Shelley provides a microcosm of the dispute between scientific materialism and romanticism which had been going on since the later part of the eighteenth century. Frankenstein may not resolve many of the more problematic issues it raises, but the {34} monster's subjugation by materialism both anticipated the ascendancy which the new science was to enjoy in the nineteenth century and warned its readers that discarding romanticism's humility and respect could only augur disaster.


1. Mary Shelley's many stories in The Keepsake can be found collected in Tales And Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Boston, 1975). 'Transformation' is reprinted on pp. 165-185.

2. References to Frankenstein from the Penguin Classics edition, ed. Maurice Hindle (1992).

3. Maurice Hindle, 'Vital Matters: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Romantic Science', Critical Survey, 1990, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 29-35 [34].

4. In E. E. Bleiler (Ed.). The Best Tales of Hoffmann, (New York, 1967), pp. 277-308. This story was first published in 1816, the approximate time of Mary Shelley's sojourn at Byron's Villa Diodati where Frankenstein was conceived. There is, however, no sufficient evidence to prove whether or not Mary Shelley read Hoffmann's tale.

5. T. H. Huxley, 'On The Hypothesis That Animals Are Automata, and Its History' in Collected Essays Volume One: Method and Results, (1893), pp. 199-250. This essay was first published in 1874.

6. For a fuller discussion of Vasbinder's excellent theories see his book Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (Michigan, 1984), especially pp. 35-50 and pp. 65-82 respectively.

7. Philip C. Ritterbush, Overtures To Biology: The Speculations of Eighteenth Century Naturalists, (1964), p. 25.

8. In Romanticism: The Culture of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Morse Peckham, (New York, 1965).

9. The similarities which critics have noticed between Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley's husband may also play a part here. Percy Shelley may well have seen himself, at times, as an alienated romantic. His father continued to detest his son's wasteful poetic career as well as his dubious moral values. Percy's father-in-law, William Godwin also deplored Percy and Mary's elopement while Percy remained married to his first wife. From the Villa Diodati it may well have appeared that Shelley -- like Lord Byron -- was ostracized by his own community.

10. Samuel Holmes Vasbinder, op. cit., compares the rhetoric of Waldman to that of Davy's Elements of Chemistry, from which the most astonishing similarities arise.

11. This incident occurs in the second chapter. 'As I stood at the door, on a sudden 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. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed' (p. 40).

12. Autobiographical elements in Frankenstein would include the killing of Victor's younger brother, William, which may relate to Mary Shelley's fears for the survival of her own son, also called William, who did in fact die in childhood; the comparisons between Victor Frankenstein and Mary's husband, already noted; the settings, all of which had been visited by Mary Shelley, including the Alps, the Scottish Highlands, the rivers of Germany and the Swiss lakes.