The hero of Mary Shelley’s novel, who creates an animate being like a man.
In 1818, the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851) published her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In this Gothic romance, the eponymous hero is a student of natural philosophy who creates an animate being assembled from parts of corpses and brings it to life by electricity.
The creature, while unnaturally strong, is repulsive to look at and cannot establish any sympathetic contact with human beings. Frankenstein creates a mate for it but destroys the female creature in remorse. The original monster then kills its creator’s bride and brings about the death of Frankenstein himself.
A major theme of the book is the arrogance of a human being daring to usurp the place of God in creating life. The reference to Prometheus in the subtitle underlines this by recalling the Greek myth in which Prometheus steals fire from the gods in order to give it to mankind and suffers their eternal punishment for it.
In the 20th century, several films were made based on both Mary Shelley’s novel as well as specially written stories featuring the monster. This helped to generate confusion in which the name ‘Frankenstein’ is often popularly applied to the creature itself.
The details of the particular kind of science that Frankenstein uses to create his monster are never made very clear, but one of the sources of inspiration for the novel was the relatively new science of galvanism. Luigi Galvani (1737–98) was an Italian physiologist who discovered ‘animal electricity’ after observing convulsive movements produced in dead frogs when they were part of a circuit involving metals. He wrongly believed that the current was produced by the dead creatures’ nerves and muscles, but his ideas (possibly through the scientific interests of her husband, the poet Shelley) undoubtedly influenced Mary Shelley’s concept of reanimating dead flesh by the application of electric charge.
Mary Shelley would also have been aware of medical experiments on corpses in which electric current would be used to make their limbs twitch or even make their eyes open in a semblance of being restored to life. Her circle, which also included the poet Byron, often debated the existence of a ‘spark of life’, and whether this could be identified and isolated from its receptacle, the human body.
The creation of artificial life was an idea much explored in the 18th century. The French engineer and inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–82) was inspired by medical science to try to construct a ‘living anatomy’, a type of automaton that would allow the study of anatomy through movement rather than on a corpse. He created a wooden figure of a flute player that contained a mechanism allowing it to ‘play’ a number of tunes, as well as a duck that could flap its wings, swim, quack and swallow food.
Another of Vaucanson’s projects (one which he did not live to carry out) was to build:
… an automaton’s face which would closely imitate the animal processes by its movements: blood circulation, breathing, digestion, the set of muscles, tendons, nerves …
Mary Shelley’s novel is often regarded as part of the horror genre, but it is equally possible to place it in the category of science fiction.
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