More on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Finished my read-through of the novel for next term. I'm going to be using Frankenstein to focus several issues -- education, which I mentioned previously, will be central, especially as it contributes to our idea of what makes us human. Oddly, the book has hardly anything to do with science, as such, because Shelley glides over the actual biology, physiology, & biophysics of Viktor's work, usually covering the moment in the text by mentioning the scientist's "chemical instruments." This is of course the gap that modern film directors have filled with elaborate laboratory sets consisting of sparking electrodes, bubbling retorts & the other iconography of science. The character of Viktor presents the literature professor with a ready-made way of talking about modern conceptions of science as both potentially a power for good, but always with a potential for evil as well. That is, we have a cultural binary of the good genius versus the mad scientist. The madness of the mad scientist is linked, in the text, to the libido of his creation. Much of the plot is driven by the monster's desire for a sexual partner & conversely by Viktor's eternal delay of his marriage to Elizabeth. In a plot filled with perplexities, it is a major perplexity why Viktor does not make a female monster who is unable to reproduce, since one the stated reasons for refusing to complete the second creature is that they might produce a "race of monsters." What was the state of knowledge about reproductive biology when Shelley wrote? But then one can't really read this book with an eye to carping realism: conceived in a dream, it has the logic of a dream. Mary Shelley, still an adolescent, whose mother died giving birth to her, pregnant herself while she wrote the story, evinces a good deal of anxiety about sexuality & childbirth. As well she might. So is this novel the story of a failure to educate sexual energy? A failure to even understand its potential destructive power -- as opposed to the pure creative  power of imagination. But even the imagination, misapplied as in Viktor's case, breeds monsters.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “More on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. That point of Viktor giving his monster an infertile mate came to my mind as well. I suspect that Shelley herself was so poorly informed about reproductive mechanics that she wouldn’t have conceived the notion at all.

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