Contents Index

The Scientific Grounding of Frankenstein

Stuart Curran

Mary vs. Mary, ed. Lilla Maria Crisafulli (Naples: Liguori Editore, 2001), pp. 283-92

{283} That Mary Shelley allows herself only one clear scientific reference in all of Frankenstein stems, I believe, from her need to resort to a certain element of finesse so that she can force the act of creation in Frankenstein beyond the known perimeters of contemporary knowledge. But that artful dodge, in turn, has led generations of readers to discount her base in an actual scientific discourse, an attitude summed up in the bald words used by U.C. Knoefelmacher to begin his appendix to The Endurance of Frankenstein in 1979, "Science in Frankenstein is, of course, pseudo-science."1 The only direct reference to how Victor brings his Creature into life is his statement at the beginning of the fourth chapter of Volume I: "With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I gathered the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet (38)."2 The "spark of being", as all the films agree, is a strong electrical impulse, and for Mary Shelley the relevant context was the famous experiment that Luigi Galvani, Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the University of Bologna, conducted in that city in the 1780s, applying electrical charges to the muscles of dead frogs.

A new generation of critics has given greater credit to Mary Shelley's finesse, wisely reading-in the context for Victor Franken- {284} stein's experiment provided by her contemporaries in Great Britain. In her chapter "A Feminist Critique of Science", Anne Mellor has presented the fullest argument yet made for this contemporary scientific context, concluding that "Mary Shelley based Victor Frankenstein's attempt to create a new species from dead organic matter through the use of chemistry and electricity on the most advanced scientific research of the early nineteenth century."3 Mellor provides relevant texts from Erasmus Darwin and Humphry Davy, which we are certain Mary Shelley knew, to support her surmise that a contemporary reader would have understood the scientific research in which Victor takes part as logically consistent with the determined electrochemical experimentation that characterizes the first fifteen years or so of the nineteenth century in Great Britain. More recently, Maurice Hindle has added greater particularity about how Mary Shelley might have come to know about this endeavor in intimate detail.4 If Victor's research is productive of results beyond the actual attainment of that scientific milieu, a contemporary reader would by no means have considered them beyond the reach of plausibility.

What genetic engineering is to our day with such uncharted revolutionary avenues as cloning and the possibility for altering or eliminating defective genes electrochemistry was to Mary Shelley's. It represented the cutting edge of the material sciences, at once promising and threatening in an intense and equal measure. In this essay I wish to reopen this area of concern, not to argue with Mellor's or Hindle's conclusions, which are to my mind entirely accurate as far as they go, but rather to enlarge the dimensions in which we construe the applicability of the scientific discourse surrounding electrochemistry to Mary Shelley's novel. It is my contention that, literally, from first to last, this discourse informs the novel, and, since neither the actual first nor last scene of the novel involves Victor Frankenstein, it is essential that we enlarge our perspective in order to recognize how all aspects of the novel are unified by its scientific context. What grounds Frankenstein in its entirety is the phenomenon of electricity. It operates as a universal metaphor touching every element in the novel.

{285} Let me illustrate what I mean in making the sweeping claim that this ground runs "literally, from first to last" by asking that we contemplate the significance of the geography of Frankenstein. Why, for instance, does this novel begin with a letter by Walton dated from St. Petersburg, moving in his second letter to Archangelsk, and thence in his third out into the Arctic Ocean? Why in its last paragraphs must we learn the exact destination the Creature intends to take in departing Walton's ship now that he is finally an independent being bereft of the guiding principle of his arch-adversary Victor? These are his words:

My work is nearly complete. Neither your's nor any man's death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done; but it requires my own. Do not think that I shall be slow to perform this sacrifice. I shall quit your vessel on the ice-raft which brought me hither, and I shall seek the most northern extremity of the globe; I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been. I shall die. I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me, or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched. He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks. (190)
This moving passage ends with a haunting reference to natural phenomena: the Creature reverts from acknowledging his adversarial relation with Victor to his claims to function within an ordered universe, one possessing a local sun and, beyond that individual star, a multitude of others that behave in similar fashion to it, all operating according to laws that regulate them and that, in turn, produce such experiences as the motion of the winds across the terrestrial globe, as well as what the Creature oddly calls "the series of my being." And all of these are in some strange way connected in the Creature's mental reference points to a ritualistic self-destruction that will occur at "the most northern extremity of the globe." If I were sharply to focus my questions and the intendant issues they raise into a single interrogative, it would be, "why should this novel be so obsessed with the North Pole?".

In the novel's first paragraphs Robert Walton fantasizes about the polar realms as a kind of paradise. We know from the geographical frame in which Percy Bysshe Shelley set his contemporary epic-{286} romance The Revolt of Islam that this kind of speculation must have been the subject of conversation between the writing couple, that, let us suppose, for some reason beyond the eccentricities of recondite Indian mythology, where Mt. Meru is a polar paradise, the romance of the north had taken hold of the imaginations of both Shelleys during this period of their creative lives.5 Walton's impulses, however, are essentially scientific in their sense of purpose, and they are unusual for their breadth and coherence. This is what he writes his sister in the second paragraph of the novel, moving insistently from romantic to scientific speculation.

There for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phænomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. But, supposing all these conjectures to be false, you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many months are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet, which, if at all possible, can only be effected by an undertaking such as mine. (5-6)
Walton's first reference in this passage is to the notorious problem faced by all northern explorers at this time, the distortion effected by the north pole on the mariner's compass, a problem solved in the 1830s, only after publication of the revised Frankenstein. Walton's ambition to make his mark as a scientist, then, is very large and of potentially enormous utility. But he does not pause {287} simply with correction of the distortions to the compass by which human beings navigate the globe. With this he will expand the possibilities for "celestial observations", which is to say, relationships between stars, perhaps among the galaxies, and, on another plane, he hopes to come to an understanding of what bonds polarized elements within a constant field.

The novel thus, with its first pages, asserts a link between the magnetism that affects all earthly commerce and the gravitation that regulates the universe. With the actual first chapter in the 1818 edition, where Victor tells of his experience as a youth watching an ancient oak tree blasted by a strike of lightning (24), we discover a third avatar of this power in atmospheric electricity. By the first decade of the 1800s the term for that phenomenon, broadly understood, had been altered by British galvanic experimentation and the reputation of its foremost investigator Humphry Davy, who renamed it to reveal its inner character. Henceforth its disparate functions would be gathered under the rubric of electrochemistry, and that concept, in turn, would be understood as embodying a principle inherent in all material nature. In this sense, and in numerous other ways as well, the analogy with alchemy, the young Victor Frankenstein's obsession, is thus transparent.

Both as demonstrated in Davy's Bakerian Lectures, and earlier in 1803, in Erasmus Darwin's Temple of Nature, with the lengthy Additional Note 12, called "Chemical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism", the central minds directing British research, with great excitement though considerable uncertainty about what might ultimately come of it all, endeavored to reveal the primary linkage underpinning what had up to then resisted theorizing as anything but distinct phenomena: that is to say, the triangular modalities of electricity, magnetism, and gravitation. Darwin's twelfth note is methodical, if somewhat slippery in its terminology, in relating a linkage among these phenomena. It is easier to see the nature of the connections among them in the representation offered to contemporary lay readers by William Nicholson, one of Godwin's oldest friends, whose general impact on the scientific discourse of Frankenstein has been suggested by Maurice Hindle.6 Nicholson was the authority to whose works the Shelleys frequently turned for up-to-date scientific knowledge, and he carefully distinguishes the relations among these phe- {288}nomena in his entry on "Attraction" in the British Encyclopedia, an entry that would be rechanneled into moral and aesthetic, as well as astrophysical, relations by Percy Bysshe Shelley in the fourth act of Prometheus Unbound a few years later. The nomenclature of this discourse at this excited but unsure stage in the development of electromagnetic theory may seem strange, but its reach is strikingly modern:

All bodies possess gravity; but it has been supposed that the other two attractions are confined to two or three subtile fluids, which constitute a part of all those bodies that exhibit the attractions of magnetism or of electricity.

If we compare the different bodies acted on by gravitation, we shall find that the absolute force of their gravitation is in all cases the same, provided their distances from each other, and their mass be the same; but this is by no means the case with electrical and magnetic bodies: in them the forces by which they are attracted to each other, called electricity and magnetism, are exceedingly various, even when the mass and the distance are the same. Sometimes these forces disappear almost entirely; at other times they are exceedingly intense.

Gravity, therefore, is a force inherent in bodies, electricity and magnetism not so; a circumstance which renders the opinion of their depending on peculiar fluids extremely probable. If we compare the absolute force of these three powers with each other, it would appear that the intensity of the two last, every thing else being equal, is greater than that of the first; but their relative intensity cannot be compared, and is therefore unknown. Hence it follows that these different attractions, though they follow the same laws of variation, are not the same in kind.7

Whatever hairs scientific accuracy may wish to split in the assignment of comparative magnitude to these forces, we may turn with some assurance to Frankenstein and determine Mary Shelley's larger impulses here. Victor Frankenstein, who has secretly made himself the foremost theorist of electrochemistry of the later eighteenth century (and that surely is what the discoverer of such a momentous breakthrough as the animation of a dead body would have been), in the improbable locale of the high Arctic Ocean meets a coworker in the same broadly defined field, Robert Walton, who wishes to achieve something on the same scale of advancement in the com- {299}bined realms of electromagnetism and gravitation. What these two scientists represent, then, when they meet in the northern wilderness and effect to coauthor a moral distillation of scientific discovery, is the leading edge of their discipline. And, unlike the dirigibles imagined as a transportation system of The Last Man, the remarkable fact of Frankenstein is that this aim remains today the great desideratum of the material sciences, what is called in English the Grand Unified Field Theorem. Albert Einstein publicly cast this theoretical formulation as the aim of all his endeavors, but in the end was forced to admit defeat before the intractable differences "in kind" (the last phrase of the excerpt quoted above) to which William Nicholson so presciently called attention in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Both Walton and Frankenstein, it should be understood, though it may be in different ways and for differing moral reasons, are likewise defeated in their attempt to find the ultimate secret of the material universe.

But, if the connection between Walton's and Frankenstein's experimentations is thus clarified, what does the Creature have to do with it, and, again, why should the north pole function as the goal to which the entire novel seems to drive? Quoting once more from his entry on "Attraction", let us allow William Nicholson to dictate our terminology:

The attractions between bodies at insensible distances, have been distinguished by the name of affinity, while the term attraction has been more commonly confined to cases of sensible distance.

Affinity may be considered as operating on homogeneous or heterogeneous substances. Homogeneous affinity urges substances of the same nature together as iron to iron, soda to soda. Heterogeneous affinity draws substances of different nature into union, as acid and alkalis.

Homogeneous affinity is usually denominated cohesion, and sometimes adhesion when the surfaces of bodies are only referred to; it is nearly universal; as far as is known, caloric and light alone are destitute of it.

Heterogeneous affinity is the cause of the formation of compound substances; thus muriatic acid [chlorine] unites with sodas and forms sea-salt; and sea-salt in saturated solution is united into masses by homogeneous affinity. Heterogeneous affinity is universal as far as is known; that is to say, there is no substance which is not attracted by some other substance. It is generally taken for granted {290} that every substance has more or less affinity for all others, though it is certainly assuming more than even analogy can warrant, and is a point which we have no means of ascertaining.

This early exposition of basic chemistry, in its attempt to represent the potentiality for compounding in all matter, may seem overly mystifying in its vocabulary. However, what makes it somewhat difficult for modern ears is, I would argue, precisely what gives it resonance for those of Mary Shelley. For the vocabulary is insistently moral and social in its figurative timbres, which is to say, that it is composed within the values we apply to what we today call human "chemistry". Those values seem to govern Frankenstein with extraordinary power.

The novel begins with what we might call a floating chemical signifier. As Walton's first letter with succinctness details the various linked scientific aims that impel him on his voyage of discovery, his second marks a central void in his life, described as "a most severe evil" (8), the want of a friend. To revert to Nicholson's terms, "there is no substance which is not attracted by some other substance", and the arrival of Victor Frankenstein aboard Walton's ship seems immediately to effect an affinity (though I am not sure that the novel wishes us to inquire too closely into whether it is hetero- or homogeneous.) Elsewhere in the novel, particularly in the relationship between Clerval and Frankenstein, a similar affinity is documented. As with the implications of the title of Goethe's novel, these may be understood as "elective affinities", terminology actually adopted by Davy -- "the usual operation of elective affinity"8 he calls it -- to represent electrochemical forces.

If I am right that the stress on electrochemistry in the novel turns scientific principle into a universal field of metaphor, then, perhaps this could explain, and perhaps even exonerate, the serious absence of a female component in Frankenstein, an absence rectified in Mary Shelley's second novel Valperga, where the "affinity" of human friendship is cast as a bond between two women, Euthanasia the Countess of Valperga and Beatrice of Ferrara. I mean by this that the feminist critique of the past decade and more could have misconstrued the reason as to why female figures have so little consequentiality for the forward motion of the novel. Mary Shelley could well {291} have considered it her most radical step as a conceptual artist to deny a privilege to male-female erotic relations in the metaphorization of a universal electrochemical affinity between material bodies. I leave that as a consideration worthy of further examination, however, to turn to the more worrisome aspect of this metaphorical field.

For, wherever there are affinities in the formation of electrochemical compounds, there are also polarized oppositions. Electrochemistry as a conceptual order defends upon such oppositions. In his "Lecture Introductory to Electro-Chemical Science" of March 12, 1808, Davy asserts that what is central to "the whole series of phenomena" he is encountering through his experiments is "the subject of electrical attraction and repulsion."9 And he goes on, as usual, to draw a universal conclusion: "Whenever adequate means of investigation have been employed, the phenomenon has been observed; and it seems to apply to all bodies differing in nature and constitution."10 Thus, we are faced with the problem of the naturally repulsive not as an aesthetic but as an electrochemical phenomenon. In simple terms, the Creature, who has been created as a working compound of human and animal parts (see Frankenstein's account of how he went about his experiment in the novel's third chapter, (37), combined by their naturally existing "hetereogeneous affinity", has been left to function as a true "lusus naturae", a freak of nature defying the capacity of all components of material nature to recombine, to be altered by chemical interaction, or to shift polarities through the application of powerful oppositional forces upon them, one of Davy's foundational chemical discoveries. The reason, then, for the precise geographical itinerary he outlines at the novel's end is to underscore the extent to which he is resolving himself into his polarity (which is, incidentally, the polarity for which Milton's Satan, who is the lord of heaven's northern realms, demonstrates his affinity.)11 The Creature's being will end, that is, by being removed from the universal contrariety that the discovery of galvanism and the ensuing electrochemical experimentation have established as an essential principle of material nature. The purely negative will resolve itself back into its ground in matter by using a "funeral pile" whose {292} byproduct will be the heat and light already understood in the first decade of the nineteenth century as the common residual effects of all electrochemical exchange enacted through that other "pile" created by Alessandro Volta

. What in the end are we to make of the way in which scientific law is used to support the moral economy of Frankenstein? My answer would be that Mary Shelley, by a shrewd and even brilliant strategy, asks us to conceive the moral world as wholly compatible with the scientific principles contemporary chemists were deriving from their experiments with galvanic electricity. We can, of course, misread those principles, resolving the world into negative and positive elements and endeavoring to align ourselves with the former and extirpate the latter. That is, paradoxically, what Victor attempts, also what, tragically, the Creature learns to emulate. But the scientific laws governing electrochemical reaction are curiously similar to Newton's Law of the Conservation of Matter. As all matter is always already in existence, being converted into energy and back into matter in a continuous cycle, so all elements are governed by the never-ending process of chemical attraction and repulsion. Nothing is left out; nothing is forever monstrous. All negatives, given the right forces operating upon them, can indeed, must exchange their polarities. That is the scientific ground by which twice at the end of the novel, first by agreeing to turn his ship back and, second, by calling upon the Creature to "stay" (187) on his ship and engage in a social and ethical exchange, Walton rights a chemistry whose experiments in Victor's hands turn out to have been founded on a fundamentally false understanding of universal material nature and as a result have threatened disaster. What Walton could have told Victor is the simple truth that the North Pole does not exist in isolation but rather in exchange, in its relation to another pole. Frankenstein's purpose as a novel is to enact the moral interchange by which that simple fact of electricity, and of human life, is grounded.


1. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 317.

2. All references are to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: 1818 Text, ed. Marilyn Butler (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), which is cited parenthetically.

3. Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fictions, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), p. 107.

4. "Vital Matters': Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Romantic Science," Critical Survey, 2:1 (1990), 29-35.

5. An illustration of Mt. Meru as the Hindu polar paradise can be found in my Shelley's Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1975), p. 66. For its historical contexts, consult p. 211, n31.

6. "Vital Matters," Critical Survey, 2:1 (1990), 32.

7. "Attraction," in William Nicholson, British Encyclopedia; or, Dictionary of arts and sciences. Comprising an accurate and popular view of the present improved state of human knowledge. 6 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809), I, unpaginated.

8. "On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity" (1806), in The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, ed. John Davy (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1839), 5:28.

9. Collected Works, 8: 277.

10. Collected Works, 8: 278.

11. I have pursued this Miltonic context at length in "'The Siege of Hateful Contraries': Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, and Paradise Lost," in Milton and the Line of Vision, ed. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. (Wisconsin: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1975), 209-20.