Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus


Text available on Project Gutenberg

Written by the Young Mary Shelley at the age of 18 and first published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein is sometimes considered to be the first true science fiction story. Brian Aldiss argues that in contrast with previous similar stories containing fantastical elements, Shelley’s main character, Victor, makes a deliberate decision to pursue his work using modern experiments in a laboratory to achieve fantastic results.[1] However, a re-reading of Frankenstein in light of Ellis Marksman’s 1999 paper, Fictions of Science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, reopens the question of whether Victor was actually engaged in science or if his work was more alchemical in nature.

Of particular interest was the idea that science was public in nature, Markman argues that Victor’s work and discovery could not be considered science because;

‘Scientific knowledge … was knowledge that was verifiable in public. … Knowledge that is not shared is not science. But Victor’s discovery is secret and is a secret. Indeed, in his later explanations, he celebrates how his discovery remains a secret even to him.’[2]

The story can almost be said to trace the development of modern science in Frankenstein’s life as he begins with the study of alchemy before moving on to ‘modern science’. However, Frankenstein partially rejects modern science as being too limited and the scientists themselves as unimaginative and unambitious, instead, encouraged by one of his lecturers, Waldman, Frankenstein continues to gain inspiration from the work of the earlier alchemists and philosophers as their work could be said to form the foundation of modern knowledge.

Ultimately Frankenstein’s monster, like his work can be said to be something of a chimera, while the monster was made up of parts of both humans and animals, his work was in part scientific and in part alchemical.

The story could be described as a cautionary tale, but it is unclear whether it is a warning against science in general or possibly the dangers of ‘science’ being carried out in secret. The novel itself lends to this air of secrecy by never revealing the means by which Victor achieves his breakthrough. As a result of the early film and theatre adaptation’s we often associate electricity and lighting with bringing the monster to life. However, beyond the mention of some early studies in electricity and batteries and the mention of the ‘spark of life’ there is no indication of this, while we are apt to imagine this moment taking place on a stormy night Shelley’s description merely states that it was a dreary night with rain pattering against the windows.

One thing is certain, Frankenstein has had a significant influence over subsequent film, literature and in popular culture, spawning a complete genre of horror films, stories and plays. It forms a fitting beginning to this groups studies and the question as to what constitutes science is one which I feel is likely to make a return appearance.

[1] Aldiss, B. (1995). The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy. New York: Syracuse university Press .

[2]Markman, E. (1999). Fictions of science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sydney Studies in English, 25, 1-20.


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