Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously 200 years ago in January, 1818. It has since become the most analysed and contested novel of all time.
It is cited today in debates on the ethics of scientific progress. The “Frankenstein effect” has become synonymous with questionable advances in genetics, in vitro fertilisation and artificial intelligence, evoking the spectre of dangerous science. It has become an example of what goes wrong when science goes too far.
When we return to Frankenstein’s origins, however, we uncover a different story. As Shelley was later to document, the story was forged during the Summer of 1816 in debates that took place between herself, her partner (later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva.
There, she records, the group was debating the arguments of poet and chemist Sir Humphry Davy and discussed “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated”.
Shelley had accompanied her father William Godwin to hear Davy give his lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution in 1812, and later, in 1816, she read his Elements of Chemical Philosophy as she was composing Frankenstein.
Davy’s account of science was mesmerising for the sheer excitement that it conveyed: “Science has … bestowed upon [man] powers which may be called almost creative,” he declared. Frankenstein, drawing upon the scientific advancements of its age, Erasmus Darwin’s early theory of evolutionary development in the 1790s, vitality, galvanism and Davy’s quest to determine the “hidden origins” of nature, partakes of the fascination and anxiety about scientific progress. But it is wrong to read the novel as being straightforwardly sceptical of scientific advancement.
‘A torrent of light’
Victor Frankenstein’s aims in creating new life are, after all, commendable. Reflecting the mixed aspirations of his mythological counterpart Prometheus, Frankenstein wishes to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world” and in so doing “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption”. He seeks to eradicate diseases which corrupt the human frame before its time.
These are not bad ambitions. But it is the way in which he pursues nature to “her hiding places” that makes his quest so fatal. Ventriloquising Shelley’s views, Frankenstein later observes that:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.