To escape what came to be known as The Year Without a Summer, a small group holed up in a Swiss villa and challenged each other to pass the time by telling the best ghost stories. Several notable literary works emerged from this friendly storytelling competition. Lord Byron’s poem Darkness, and the seeds of a novel about a blood-sucking man, which was used later by John William Polidori to write The Vampyre. By far the most important work conceived during this blustery retreat was written by the teen-aged Mary Godwin Shelley. That’s right folks, today we’re talking about the world’s first sci-fi thriller, the gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. What exactly was it about this work that captured the imagination of Shelley’s contemporaries? We have some ideas. The Scientific Revolution, gender crisis, literary Romanticism, and bodysnatching panics among them.
Marissa: Picture it! The year is 1816. Four well-dressed and fashionable young adults are gathered around a flickering fireplace in Geneva Switzerland. It’s summer but you wouldn’t know it because the sun hadn’t shone for months. They didn’t know it but a volcanic eruption in Indonesia the year before had catapulted millions of metric tons of ash into the atmosphere, blanketing the world in bleak darkness.
Sarah: The foursome enjoyed considerable celebrity in their home country of England. The eldest among the four, Lord Byron, was escaping crushing debts and rumors of incest in England. The other three, Mary Godwin Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, and her sister Claire were attempting, and failing, to escape London’s dreary weather with a visit to their friend Byron. Contemplating the bleak landscape, Mary wrote, “Never was a scene more awfully desolate.”
Marissa: To escape what came to be known as The Year Without a Summer, the group holed up in a Swiss villa and challenged each other to pass the time by telling the best ghost stories. It was the only activity that seemed appropriate given the dreary weather. Several notable literary works emerged from this friendly storytelling competition. Lord Byron’s poem Darkness, and the seeds of a novel about a blood-sucking man, which was used later by John William Polidori to write The Vampyre. By far the most important work conceived during this blustery retreat was written by the teen-aged Mary Godwin Shelley. It was her debut novel.
Sarah: The novel garnered attention immediately after it was published in 1818, prompting a French edition and English reprint in short order. The 1831 edition was in such demand that it required four reprints in Mary Shelley’s lifetime. In 1845, American presses issued their first edition, though they’d been printing pirated editions for decades. What exactly was it about this work that captured the imagination of Shelley’s contemporaries?
Marissa: We have some ideas. The Scientific Revolution, gender crisis, literary Romanticism, and bodysnatching panics among them. That’s right folks, today we’re talking about the world’s first sci-fi thriller, the gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.
and I’m Sarah
Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
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Transcript for Frankenstein’s Monster: Science, Revolution and Romanticism in the Age of the Enlightenment
Marissa: Before we get started, we should probably summarize the story of Frankenstein for our listeners who have not had the pleasure of reading it. Full disclosure, this summary was written by Sparknotes… literally. The people at Sparknotes are experts at extracting the most meaningful parts of any work and including them in their summaries. I decided not to reinvent the wheel. So here goes:
“In a series of letters, Robert Walton, the captain of a ship bound for the North Pole, recounts to his sister back in England the progress of his dangerous mission. Successful early on, the mission is soon interrupted by seas full of impassable ice. Trapped, Walton encounters Victor Frankenstein, who has been traveling by dog-drawn sledge across the ice and is weakened by the cold. Walton takes him aboard ship, helps nurse him back to health, and hears the fantastic tale of the monster that Frankenstein created.
Sarah: “Victor first describes his early life in Geneva. At the end of a blissful childhood spent in the company of Elizabeth Lavenza (his cousin in the 1818 edition, his adopted sister in the 1831 edition) and friend Henry Clerval, Victor enters the university of Ingolstadt to study natural philosophy and chemistry. There, he is consumed by the desire to discover the secret of life and, after several years of research, becomes convinced that he has found it.
Armed with the knowledge he has long been seeking, Victor spends months feverishly fashioning a creature out of old body parts. One climactic night, in the secrecy of his apartment, he brings his creation to life. When he looks at the monstrosity that he has created, however, the sight horrifies him. After a fitful night of sleep, interrupted by the specter of the monster looming over him, he runs into the streets, eventually wandering in remorse. Victor runs into Henry, who has come to study at the university, and he takes his friend back to his apartment. Though the monster is gone, Victor falls into a feverish illness.
Marissa: “Sickened by his horrific deed, Victor prepares to return to Geneva, to his family, and to health. Just before departing Ingolstadt, however, he receives a letter from his father informing him that his youngest brother, William, has been murdered. Grief-stricken, Victor hurries home. While passing through the woods where William was strangled, he catches sight of the monster and becomes convinced that the monster is his brother’s murderer. Arriving in Geneva, Victor finds that Justine Moritz, a kind, gentle girl who had been adopted by the Frankenstein household, has been accused. She is tried, condemned, and executed, despite her assertions of innocence. Victor grows despondent, guilty with the knowledge that the monster he has created bears responsibility for the death of two innocent loved ones.
Sarah: “Hoping to ease his grief, Victor takes a vacation to the mountains. While he is alone one day, crossing an enormous glacier, the monster approaches him. The monster admits to the murder of William but begs for understanding. Lonely, shunned, and forlorn, he says that he struck out at William in a desperate attempt to injure Victor, his cruel creator. The monster begs Victor to create a mate for him, a monster equally grotesque to serve as his sole companion.
Victor refuses at first, horrified by the prospect of creating a second monster. The monster is eloquent and persuasive, however, and he eventually convinces Victor. After returning to Geneva, Victor heads for England, accompanied by Henry, to gather information for the creation of a female monster. Leaving Henry in Scotland, he secludes himself on a desolate island in the Orkneys and works reluctantly at repeating his first success. One night, struck by doubts about the morality of his actions, Victor glances out the window to see the monster glaring in at him with a frightening grin. Horrified by the possible consequences of his work, Victor destroys his new creation. The monster, enraged, vows revenge, swearing that he will be with Victor on Victor’s wedding night.
Marissa: “Later that night, Victor takes a boat out onto a lake and dumps the remains of the second creature in the water. The wind picks up and prevents him from returning to the island. In the morning, he finds himself ashore near an unknown town. Upon landing, he is arrested and informed that he will be tried for a murder discovered the previous night. Victor denies any knowledge of the murder, but when shown the body, he is shocked to behold his friend Henry Clerval, with the mark of the monster’s fingers on his neck. Victor falls ill, raving and feverish, and is kept in prison until his recovery, after which he is acquitted of the crime.
Shortly after returning to Geneva with his father, Victor marries Elizabeth. He fears the monster’s warning and suspects that he will be murdered on his wedding night. To be cautious, he sends Elizabeth away to wait for him. While he awaits the monster, he hears Elizabeth scream and realizes that the monster had been hinting at killing his new bride, not himself. Victor returns home to his father, who dies of grief a short time later. Victor vows to devote the rest of his life to finding the monster and exacting his revenge, and he soon departs to begin his quest.
Sarah: “Victor tracks the monster ever northward into the ice. In a dogsled chase, Victor almost catches up with the monster, but the sea beneath them swells and the ice breaks, leaving an unbridgeable gap between them. At this point, Walton encounters Victor, and the narrative catches up to the time of Walton’s fourth letter to his sister.
Walton tells the remainder of the story in another series of letters to his sister. Victor, already ill when the two men meet, worsens and dies shortly thereafter. When Walton returns, several days later, to the room in which the body lies, he is startled to see the monster weeping over Victor. The monster tells Walton of his immense solitude, suffering, hatred, and remorse. He asserts that now that his creator has died, he too can end his suffering. The monster then departs for the northernmost ice to die.”
Marissa: Annnnnnd….. SCENE! As we said in our opening, Frankenstein was published in 1818, but most of the action took place at some unspecified earlier time in the eighteenth century, during the era of Enlightenment. Keep in mind that this would have been nearly a century after the Scientific Revolution in the 1600s. During the Scientific Revolution, scientists like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon demonstrated the importance of empirical research and developed the scientific method.
Several scientists directed their energies toward understanding the human body. At first, Mediterranean Europe served as the vanguard of medical science. In their quest to understand and represent the human form on canvas and in marble, Italian Renaissance artists took to studying human anatomy. Italian city-states like Venice and Florence housed the intellectual centers of medical science. Scientists from all over Europe traveled to Italy to study human anatomy. Andreas Vesalius, for example, was born in Brussels in 1514 but studied medicine at the University of Padua.
Sarah: Vesalius studied the classical texts (like everyone did) but, like Renaissance artists, he also had an interest in human anatomy. He was known to go into ‘charnel houses’ and cemeteries to examine skeletons. Earlier, while he lived in Paris, he had snuck to the gallows to try to examine executed corpses. Of course, he was doing this without approval from the proper authorities, because he was frustrated with the inadequacy of his anatomy lessons in medical school.
Marissa: As he studied, and his reputation grew, occasionally people came to him for answers that other doctors couldn’t provide. After his graduation, he accepted a position at the University of Padua teaching surgery and anatomy. He felt that dissection was vital to medical training, and so made the dissection of cadavers a major part of his teaching.
As an anatomy professor, he was allotted access to a certain number of bodies. Where did these bodies come from? As we discussed in our Pathology episode, most dissected bodies belonged to executed criminals. Occasionally someone donated a body for dissection, usually to find out what had killed a loved one.
Sarah: However, in an age before refrigeration, performing dissections was a tricky process that could only be done during cold winter months to prevent putrefaction. Even with the cold weather, there was only so much they could do to stop the body from decomposing. They performed dissections in an order that prioritized the body parts that decomposed more rapidly: First the heart, bowels, and brain. Then, the muscles. Then the bones. After dissection, most remains were cleaned and prepared into articulated skeletons that could be used to teach anatomy even without flesh. One of Vesalius’s skeletons is still at the University of Basel in Switzerland. This whole process of anatomization might take 3-4 weeks.
Marissa: Vesalius still only got a limited number of bodies. People weren’t executed every day, and he needed to negotiate with local authorities every time he wanted to secure one. To supplement the small number he might get from local authorities, he also occasionally received a body from his students, which they stole from local cemeteries.
In some cases, Vesalius instructed his students to steal bodies when he needed something in particular. For example, during his attempts to understand women’s reproductive systems, he had his students steal women’s bodies from graveyards. Women’s bodies would have been in short supply since fewer women than men were executed as criminals. This was kind of risky, because it could be discovered if someone recognized the corpse. In one case, he removed the woman’s skin to prevent her family from being able to identify her (actually, this is the lady whose anatomy is used to illustrate the inverted penis/uterus).
Sarah: Vesalius published Tabulae Anatomicae Sex in 1538. In 1543, he wrote De humani corporis fabrica. He commissioned the illustrations so that he can use them with his students. Medical education largely involved reading, and for the most part, the reading was in the classical texts. There had been very little hands-on experience and no clinical practice. Sometimes, depending on the school, students would see a dissection after they did the reading, but most often, the dissection was of an animal, not a human. With these illustrations, Vesalius hoped to be able to provide his students at least with anatomical knowledge.
Marissa: Vesalius wanted not only to disseminate anatomical knowledge in his lectures, but also to publish it to make it more widely available. After the work of Vesalius, we have the establishment of a real tension about the meanings of human bodies after death. Increasingly, medical science and the practice of medicine became centered on the knowledge of human anatomy. For centuries, there had been a wide variety of different kinds of medical practitioners: apothecaries, midwives, chirurgeons, folk healers, etc.
Sarah: Medical doctors had been more akin to philosophers, with some specialized knowledge (how to interpret the colors of urine, for instance), but they were really just one of several options. A detailed knowledge of anatomy has the power to change that calculation. It was anatomists that had the ultimate power over the body: it was the anatomist who could cut and break and remove with impunity; they could reduce human bodies to a bunch of parts. For centuries, this power had been relegated to low-born, and poorly educated practitioners like barber-surgeons. This was about to change.
Marissa: Anatomizing became an activity achieved by the learned. It meant learning a kind of specialized medical language, one only shared by fellow doctors. According to one historian: “Anatomical dissection served as the ritual that inducted young men into the cult of medical knowledge; the shared anatomical experience initiated the student into the fraternity of dissectors.” In other words, this was not something that other people were allowed to do. For an average person, looking at body parts or probing the body was desecrating a corpse and was against the law.
During the Scientific Revolution, then, the dividing line between low-born barber-surgeons and elite, classically trained physicians became blurred. No one exemplified this better than William Harvey. Harvey (1578-1657) was very well educated as a doctor in both Italy and England. He was a working practitioner at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London where he evaluated patients and offered advice. At this point, barber surgeons were the skilled (but uneducated) laborers performing the dirty work.
Sarah: Hospitals were still not places like they are today; most often treated people who were unable to get private treatment at home. Even so, St. Bartholomew’s was a great place to get clinical experience. In 1615, Harvey was appointed Lumley Lecturer at the College of Physicians. He would lecture twice a week for an audience of students and other doctors. Harvey was authorized to use up to 4 bodies per year for anatomical dissection. A surgeon did the actual cutting while Harvey stood over the body and lectured.
Harvey married the daughter of Lancelot Browne, the personal doctor to Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. This eventually led to his own appointment as King Charles I’s personal physician. As a researcher, Harvey was curious about the circulatory system. His work on the human circulatory system is his most important legacy. In Harvey’s time, the dominant interpretation of blood circulation was based on Galenic medicine.
Marissa: The Roman physician Galen held that there were two kinds of blood: one created in the liver and one created in the heart. Galen also believed that blood was “consumed” by organs and that it moved in a “tidal motion,” flowing from place to place like the ocean tides. Harvey wanted to understand these things, and he had the rare privilege of access to bodies because of his lectureship.
As an empiricist, Harvey believed in “ocular demonstrations,” in other words, performing experiments and gaining knowledge with eye witnesses, rather than drawing up arguments based on your reading of the other theorists and philosophers. He also had access to living patients at St. Bartholomew’s. He did various experiments with tying ligatures around a man’s arm to observe how blood flow was cut off. He then could see the raised veins.
Sarah: He also tried to use his finger to “move” the blood backwards, but realized that blood could only move in one direction through the veins (rather than moving back and forth tidally). Even then, the only way that he could learn about how blood traveled was through vivisection, or a process of dissecting animals while still alive to see the ways their organs functioned. After all, blood circulation ceased at the point of death.
For instance, in 1636, during a lecture in Bavaria (Germany), Harvey sliced open the chest of a live dog (not under anesthesia or sedatives, just tied down) so that he could demonstrate the beating of the heart. He said, “the heart’s active phase is contraction, when it drives out the blood as it were by force, as I shall now demonstrate.” Then he cut the dog’s pulmonary artery, to show the blood spurted out under pressure.
Marissa: He also used deer from Charles I’s private hunting parks, which was a very rare privilege. His relationship with Charles I was so intimate that when Charles became aware of a medical phenomenon, he brought it directly to Harvey’s attention. A young man named Hugh Montgomery became gravely injured as a child after he suffered a serious fall. A cavity opened in his chest where an abscess formed that allowed observers to see Montgomery’s heart from the outside. Charles I summoned Montgomery to court and sat with Harvey observing his heart and discussing its workings.
In 1628, Harvey published his major study of circulation, called De Motu Cordis, or The Motion of the Heart, in which he argues, correctly, that blood is pumped around the body in a circular motion by the heart. The work was dedicated to Charles I and Harvey remained a staunch monarchist loyal to the Crown all through the English Civil Wars that saw Charles’s execution and the toppling of the British monarchy.
Sarah: Harvey changed the human body. Previously, the body had been something created and set in motion by God and God alone. God had started the blood moving and kept it moving. The body had been divinely designed. It was made in God’s image. Now, according to Harvey’s research, the body was instead more like a machine: a part pumped blood and that’s what kept you alive.
It’s a scientific and medical discovery, but it’s also a philosophical and religious one: the body is more like a mechanical machine than it is like the image of God.
Marissa: These anatomical findings were reinforced by the world of ideas. French philosopher Rene Descartes theorized that one can only learn about the world and further the studies of science, math, etc., through real-world observations. Dream interpretation, for instance, brought no real knowledge; it’s not rational or real. Descartes’s philosophy was called rationalism. It championed the seeking of truth through intellectual investigation, rather than through experiments using the senses. The senses, he thought, were irrational, immeasurable, and subject to feelings that muddied the waters like fear and hope. Descartes’s ideas triggered a contest between rationalists like Descartes (who focused on thinking and intellectual investigation), and the empiricists like Newton and Bacon (who focused on feeling and sensation).
As the Scientific Revolution wound down, philosophers in England, Scotland, France, and the Netherlands continued to theorize about science’s relationship to religion, society, and humanity. They became known as the Philosophes, important public intellectuals whose ideas had immediate and measurable impact on ordinary folks.
Sarah: Three such Philosophes were Voltaire (1694-1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778, and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). All three argued for a civil order based on natural law and science based on reason. Voltaire championed the importance of education, particularly historical education. He believed that historians needed to write history based on a strict adherence to evidence and facts rather than hearsay or rumor or to serve a particularly political end. Even more importantly, he railed against superstition, dogma, and irrational thinking.
Immanuel Kant rejected a society ruled by the doctrine and dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. On the meaning of “enlightenment,” he wrote, “Enlightenment is leaving one’s self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is the motto of the modern Enlightenment.”
Marissa: You can see how Voltaire’s and Kant’s ideas were hostile to both the organized religion and folksy paganism that had shaped ordinary people’s lives for centuries. What was the “self-caused immaturity” that Kant criticized so sharply? He was not just talking about one person, but of people in general. This self-caused immaturity was people’s unquestioning adherence to religion. In the centuries prior to the Enlightenment, people had largely been motivated and, indeed, controlled, by religion. The Catholic Church did this by controlling, for example, the language of the Bible. Catholic masses and religious texts were in Latin (inaccessible to the uneducated masses).
The Protestant Reformation remedied this issue somewhat but most of Europe remained Catholic. Moreover, some of the more conservative Protestant Churches, Lutherans and the Church of England for example, maintained a hierarchy that made the best educations available only to elites.
Sarah: Why was this? Education was dangerous. The economically oppressed, if suddenly well-educated, would stop conceiving of those in positions of power as somehow inherently better than they were. They may begin to think above and beyond a blind adherence to religion. During the Scientific Revolution and even more so during era of Enlightenment, religion began to move away from the center of people’s lives. Think of the name of the movement: the Enlightenment. It was about moving away from the darkness of dogma and blind faith and toward the light of scientific investigation, rationality, and lived experience.
Marissa: Rousseau’s ideas also challenged the traditional world view, but in a different way. He rejected the old-fashioned and religious doctrine that stated that all men are naturally wicked or violent. Instead, Rousseau argued that people were inherently a “tabula rasa” or “blank slate,” that needed to be written on. Humans, he believed, were innately good and their environments were responsible for shaping them into what they would become. If they were guided toward education and well-formed intellects, they would be rational, intelligent human beings. If they were guided toward an irrational, violent, or asocial path, they really might resemble the wicket humans described in dogmatic lore. It is easy to see how Rousseau’s ideas served as a foundation for behavioral sciences like psychology and sociology. He asked the question, how does someone’s life experience, as children and adolescents, form them into the adults they became?
Sarah: The Enlightenment can be summed up in this Latin motto: Sapere aude: DARE TO KNOW… How does any of this bring us to Frankenstein? Well, in the story, Victor grows up reading old, old texts from medical thinkers like Paracelsus; when he arrives in Ingolstadt to study, his professor tells him:
“Every minute, every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus! My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”
Marissa: Then he goes to his first chemistry lecture with Professor Waldeman; he talks about how the old sciences (alchemy) are dead, but that the new ‘philosophers’ “indeed perform miracles.”
“They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens, they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breath. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”
The thinkers of the Enlightenment wanted people to explore, discover, and know things. Their reception by ordinary folks inspired a change in attitude toward scientific exploration and investigation. If the Scientific Revolution changed the attitudes of elite scientists and mathematicians, the Enlightenment worked to bring these changed attitudes to the rest of society.
There was a sense that in a rational world, science and medicine could certainly unlock the secrets of the universe with enough study. So in the last quarter of the 18th century, people were feeling like there’s really nothing science cannot solve or mysteries that it can’t crack. This included political philosophy, inequality, and social strife.
Sarah: But there are always two sides to every story. For every proponent of modern science and Enlightened thought, there was a detractor. For every atheist, anarchist and anatomist, there was a faithful adherent or spiritual devotee who sensed danger in humanity’s new desire to unravel God’s secrets. Some of these skeptics asked worthy questions. Is there a sense in which the scientific method and intellectuals dabbling in society are, themselves, dangerous? Are humans supposed to penetrate the recesses of nature? Can we go too far? Are there moral or ethical questions in knowing or discovering too much? Are there times that in the quest for knowledge, we actually cause more harm? There were several events in the later 1700s and early 1800s that brought this question to the fore and made Frankenstein a hit.
Marissa: It would have been natural for Mary Shelley to ask these questions through the novel of Frankenstein. Here is a good reminder that scientific progress was never a straight upward trajectory. It hit many bumps in the road. Two of these aforementioned bumps were the French Revolution and gender relations. All one needs to do is understand her mother’s life, a story with which she had been intimately familiar despite never having met her. Mary Wollstonecraft is regarded as the foremost female Enlightenment thinker, advocate for gender equality, and supporter of the French Revolution.
Sarah: Wollstonecraft was born in 1759. Her father was a violent alcoholic who beat Mary’s mother and reduced the family to poverty. As a result, Wollstonecraft was economically independent from her family at the age of 19. She taught herself to write. At one point she opened a school for girls because she was convinced that education was the key to financial independence from men.
Wollstonecraft pieced together odd jobs over the years while she wrote both fiction and non-fiction. She became a well-known figure once the American and French Revolutions triggered debates over political rights. Wollstonecraft inserted herself into these discussions, publishing the Vindication of the Rights of Men. She aligned herself with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in opposition to the conservative Edmund Burke.
Marissa: After Vindication was first published, it became clear to her that these Philosophes… all men… were NOT including women in their theories about liberty. In fact, women were becoming more confined to the home than ever. As you’ll remember from our episodes on motherhood and fertility, this era saw the beginnings of stay-at-home-motherhood. (Rousseau was kind of a misogynist prick who believed women should bear the brunt of forming their little baby tabula rasas into educated citizens.)
Sarah: In 1792, Wollstonecraft retaliated against the male Philosophes who insisted on dominating the conversation about civil liberties by publishing the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Now don’t get me wrong, Wollstonecraft still aligned herself with Rousseau and agreed with him that women SHOULD bear the brunt of educating their children. But rather than perceiving this as a charge required by the men in her life, Wollstonecraft envisioned this as an opportunity to advocate for better education for women, greater responsibility, and increased opportunities.
Wollstonecraft believed that true equality would not be possible if women remained second-class citizens. Her unconventional life demonstrated her rejection of the norms of the time. She traveled to France to witness the revolution, arriving in the midst of the Reign of Terror. She had many romantic relationships, one of which produced a daughter. Her first daughter’s father was Wollstonecraft’s on-again-off-again companion Gilbert Imlay. Imlay was an American, born in New Jersey, with a penchant for adventure and exploration. He met Wollstonecraft in Paris during the Reign of Terror. He was acting as an American diplomat.
Marissa: Wollstonecraft never married Imlay and their relationship ended when she discovered he was cheating on her with an actress. Wollstonecraft remained an unmarried mother until she was pregnant with Mary Shelley, her second daughter. During her pregnancy, she married her partner William Godwin, a political philosopher. Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever a few days after the birth of their daughter, Mary Godwin (later, Mary Shelley).
Wollstonecraft had a tough life. She suffered poverty, abuse, and attempted suicide twice. Still, she was a notable contributor to the Enlightenment, a successful writer, and her ideas about women and social justice were well ahead of her time. Her failure to fit into the eighteenth-century world became apparent after her death. Godwin, Shelley’s father, published Wollstonecaft’s memoirs a year after her death. He was dedicated to her memory and to the causes she espoused. However few people appreciated her ideas or her non-conforming behavior at the time. The public was shocked by her sexual affairs, stormy relationships, and illegitimate child. Moreover, they were disgusted by Wollestonecraft’s obvious and unabashed support for the French Revolution.
Sarah: As we mentioned earlier, Shelley never met her mother. She was, however, close with her father. The ultra-liberal philosopher that he was, he strove to teach her all about her mother’s life, philosophies, and writings. Though Wollstonecraft experienced French Revolution first hand, she died before she knew its consequences. Her daughter, on the other hand, lived through its repercussions on the rest of Europe. It is for this reason that many literary scholars interpret the Frankenstein story as an allegory for the French Revolution.
Marissa: If we read Frankenstein this way, we can clearly see the idea that just like Victor’s scientific experiments, eighteenth-century discussions about the rights of man had unleashed a monster. In Victor’s case, his monster was a flesh and blood beast. The monster that the Enlightenment made, however, could be seen as the French Revolution and resulting Reign of Terror. Edmund Burke (who Shelley’s mother had called out with one of her political pieces) wrote: “out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre.”
The metaphor works quite well. Victor was fascinated with giving life, and creating a new race. This optimism represents the zeal and utopianism after fall of Bastille in 1789. Remember “Liberty, equality and fraternity.” But, like Victor’s experiment, the Revolution devolves into violence, anarchy and fratricide, Robespierre guillotining enemies of the state, and the streets of Paris filled with blood.
Sarah: As historian Francois Furet points out, Enlightenment Philosophes (Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.) were ACADEMICS. They were NOT politicians. Their ideas had no basis in real life… they were consigned to the realm of theory. Furet believes that French Revolutionaries got caught up on the idealism of Enlightenment political philosophy. In other words, the French went forward with a revolution without any concrete idea about what they would create in its place.
They tried to LITERALLY apply Enlightenment politics to society–> literal equality, abolishing all vestiges of traditional society–> the calendar, religion (slavery they argued about.. because MONEY). Rather than building a society based on these IDEALS, they tried to build an IDEAL society, and it didn’t work, because societies don’t work that way.
Marissa: If you think about it, this is the political version of Frankenstein. It’s just like Victor’s obsession with science and progress, finding a new way to give life, to cheat death. This sounds kind of awesome but he’s not prepared. Instead, he creates a monster and regrets it. He doesn’t consider the monster’s practical need for companionship or his need for love and affection from his “father”—all of these things go into making someone human. When you skip them, it’s a problem.
The analogy is clear.
· LESSON: Is such a thing as too much enthusiasm… nobody thought this through, they got in over their heads. Theory doesn’t translate precisely into real life.
· Political engineering is unnatural. It doesn’t work and if you try, you may just create a monster that you can’t control.
Sarah: The French Revolution left imprints on all of the Western world. It shocked everyone that such a civilized society could devolve into barbaric chaos. It showed everyone the destructive potential of civilization. It hit close to home and many people were joined in solidarity over preventing it from ever happening again. This cause was more important than national differences. So the concept behind the story of Frankenstein would have fit snugly in with the climate of the time. Nuclear proliferation might be a good analogy.
One of the reasons why literary scholars have interpreted Frankenstein as a reaction to the French Revolution is because it was written during the summit of literary Romanticism. Romanticism was a cultural, artistic, and literary movement that was born during the Napoleonic wars in the first decade of the 1800s.
Marissa: The radical violence of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution activated a conservative backlash the likes of which had never been seen. Romanticism sprung from this productive tension between radical and conservative post-Revolutionary coalitions Conservative intellectuals like Edmund Burke and William Coxe launched a counter-revolutionary campaign of Enlightened thought.
Sarah: Napoleon Bonaparte ended the French Revolutionary regime with a coup in 1799. Benefitting from swells of national pride, Napoleon waged war on half of Europe, toppling governments and erecting Napoleonic Republics in their places. Over time, he repressed radicals, and the press, and established his conservative Napoleonic Code. By 1810 or so, Napoleon had become an authoritarian dictator. Meanwhile, as liberal Enlightenment politics were delegitimized and pushed underground, French Revolutionary ideology was increasingly espoused by young, rebellious Romantics. Romantics, in many ways, constitute the third challenge to Enlightened science that we’ll touch on today.
Marissa: During the last of the Napoleonic Wars, playboys and poets such as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron made names for themselves as atheists, libertines, and anti-establishmentarians. A good analogy for them might be Marlon Brando or James Dean. Better yet, for people our age, early 2000s emo front men like Chris Carrabba from Dashboard Confessional or Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance. These boys are young, beautiful, sensitive, lyrically talented, relatively privileged but slightly damaged, constantly fighting with their dads and getting expelled from high school.
Percy Shelley had long, overgrown hair, a pretty face, and dressed edgily, refusing to wear a neckerchief. He wore his linen shirts gaping open outrageously. To respectable people, he appeared arrogant, unkempt, and sullen. To young women he was magnetic and compulsively non-conformist. Lord Byron was somewhat similar. He was well-born but grew into a temperamental, promiscuous dreamer who fought (and died) for Greek independence in the 1820s. Both died very young- this was a requirement for Romantic-era poets. They were imitated by a gaggle of atheists, anarchists, and rebellious but talented literary minds like John Keats (also dead at 25 by tuberculosis).
Sarah: But the Romantics were not all so sympathetic to French Revolutionary radicals. The other two Romantic greats, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were equally enamored with Enlightenment principles but they, unlike Shelley and Byron, saw such principles as perfectly compatible with aristocratic life. Though Shelley and Byron were privileged men, they denounced the wealth and status that they benefitted from in early life. They associated with commoners (John Keats for instance), frittered away their inheritances, and racked up enormous debts in their quests for meaning. Wordsworth and Coleridge, on the other hand, used their aristocratic influence and extensive educations to contemplate the human condition and contribute to society as public intellectuals. Both schools were, however, shaped by the ideas and events of the French Revolution.
Marissa: Mary Godwin, the daughter of famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, moved easily in Romantic, literary circles. Her father, William Godwin, was a political philosopher who took radicals and poets under his wing. Mary met Percy Shelley in 1814 but he was already married to Harriet Westbrook. For all of their genius, Romantics were not known for their fidelity. Mary and Shelley fled on a trip to continental Europe as soon as they met. When they returned, Mary was pregnant with Shelley’s child. Things only got more tumultuous from there. Polite society shunned them for their affair, their primary contact being the debt-collectors who hounded them ad threatened debtor’s prison. Their daughter was born prematurely and died. In 1816, Shelley’s wife Harriet died by suicide. (Trauma layered upon trauma layered upon trauma, I know).
Mary and Shelley were free to marry after Harriet’s death. It was during this time that they travelled with Lord Byron to Switzerland during the Year Without a Summer, the year the newly married Mary Shelley conceived of the novel Frankenstein. The couple lived a nomadic existence, moving from one city to the next but staying mostly in Italy. They produced several more children. All but one of them died as infants or toddlers. In 1820, The Shelleys heard news of the death of John Keats and Percy Shelley wrote his most acclaimed work, Adonais, an elegy for their lost friend. Mary Shelley wrote one novella, called Mathilda, around this time. As you can imagine, however, much of her time was spent being pregnant, nursing, burying and mourning her children.
Sarah: Victorian scholars posited that it was Percy Shelley, rather than Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. Most of them were unable to conceive of the possibility that a woman could create a gothic, sci-fi literary masterpiece. They were wrong. Though Romanticism was largely dominated by men, there were a significant number of women authors and poets who enriched the tradition. Letitia Elizabeth Landon, for instance, was referred to as the Female Byron (died by suicide at the age of 36). The Romantic era allowed for a brief period of relative gender equity, and cheeky permissiveness before the 1830s ushered in a strict Victorian code of behavior.
Marissa: Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, a daughter named Ada, benefited from this brief vulnerability of the patriarchy as she was educated in the 1820s. Lady Byron was convinced that Lord Byron was insane and that his insanity would also manifest in their daughter, especially if she dabbled in the literary arts from a young age. So Lady Byron insisted on a math- and science-heavy curriculum for her daughter. Ada Lovelace became a world-renowned mathematician and the author of the very first computer program. Lord Byron’s promiscuity and Lady Byron’s preoccupation with vindictive plots against him meant that Ada grew up without the parental affection and control that might have formed her into a respectable Victorian lady. It’s not entirely clear if this was a good or bad thing.
Sarah: For feminism, Lovelace’s life story (like Wollstonecraft’s), served as an example of female intellectual prowess and ingenuity. But, like Wollstonecraft, Lovelace suffered for her art. Lovelace suffered neglect as a child, ostracism by her peers as an adult. She was exploited by her mentor Charles Babbage who took credit for her work. She developed a gambling habit and suffered constant interference (but no affection) from her mother who believed her to be a moral reprobate. She died at the age of 36 from uterine cancer.
Marissa: Clearly, the instability of Romantic-era life brought as much opportunity for women as it did sorrow. The same can be said of Mary Godwin Shelley. We know now that Shelley was remarkably talented in her own right. She produced an impressive body of work, especially after Percy’s accidental drowning in 1822. Mary Shelley’s body of work is often perceived to be a departure from the work of Romantics like her husband and Enlightenment philosophes like her parents. In some ways this is true. Most Romantics were mavericks, loners, and anarchists. But as we mentioned earlier, there was another strain of Romanticism that harnessed the optimism of Enlightenment social science and espoused a communal ethic. Her works often suggest that women, their role of mothers, and their natural skills as empaths, were the key to improving civil society. In this sense, she fits right in with the teachings of her father and late husband. Unsurprisingly, given her upbringing, more recent scholarship on her lesser known works has revealed that she was just as politically radical as Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, or her parents.
Sarah: Many scholars have performed feminist readers and critiques of Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are, by no means, literary scholars, but they often do a good job of explaining why a work of literature was received the way it was at the time it was published and why we understand it the way we do today. One literary scholar, Ellen Moers, argues that Frankenstein’s monster represents the “phantasmagoria of the nursery.” Shelley was no stranger to the medical dangers of child birth. She may have meant to emphasize the messy, heartbreaking realities of child birth at the time.
Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft had died of childbed fever. Wollstonecraft birthed her daughter without incident but failed to deliver the placenta after giving birth to Mary Godwin Shelley. This inevitably led to putrefaction and infection, from which Wollstonecraft died in a matter of days. Mary Godwin Shelley herself also birthed a baby who passed away shortly after birth.
Marissa: If you think about it, the character of Victor Frankenstein seeks to bypass the female body- make the female body obsolete. He creates life without a womb. Victor is messing with nature— women are the creators of life, but he’s a man doing it, without a woman’s help. Man is not supposed to make life, women are. Or perhaps god is. So he’s playing god as well as playing woman.
For years, this suggested to scholars that Frankenstein had not been written by Shelley. Unlike most novels written by women, Frankenstein contains no strong, female heroines. Male scholars find feminist readings of Frankenstein to be particularly suspect for this reason. But literary scholar Kate Ellis claims that’s the point. The absence of a female heroine was strategic, mirroring the absence of female figures in Shelley’s world.
There were, of course, a few—Wollstonecraft, Shelley herself, and Ada Lovelace, but they paid high prices for their visibility. Ellis sees Frankenstein as an exposé and criticism of bourgeois sex roles, the domestic spheres. The only women in the novel are passive, helpless wretches—either sick, dead, or unable to control their lives. It’s interesting to think about what women, at the time, might have thought about Frankenstein when they read it.
Sarah: Perhaps more obvious than the themes of the French Revolution, Romanticism, and contested gender roles, Frankenstein’s gothic horror resonated most with audiences who were suspicious of medical science. In addition to radical political philosophy, the Enlightenment was also marked by doctors and scientists taking medical science even further. This is where we encounter the more obvious Frankenstein-ian(?) themes.
One of the things that really captured the imagination of some scientists and certainly much of the public is the question of reanimation. If humans are machines, as was proven by Harvey and reinforced by the atheist and Deist Philosophes, can human bodies be repaired and set to running again like machines? Why do they stop working permanently? If humans were animals, rather than beings formed in the image of God, how were they animated? What was the “spark” that made people alive? Could it be artificially imposed? Was it possible for doctors and scientists to bring people back once they had died? Enlightenment-era scientists started to dabble in the mysteries of life that that had always been considered outside the boundaries of what humans were supposed to be able to do.
Marissa: One great example is the Galvanism movement. A scientist named Luigi Galvani did experiments with electricity and dead animals, especially frogs and discovered that when you electrocuted frogs they twitched. He proposed that animals contained electricity within their bodies, and that perhaps by reinvigorating that electricity, we could bring dead things back to life. Galvani’s research was mentioned in Frankenstein when the lighting hits the tree.
Galvani wasn’t entirely wrong – this is the same theory that led us to electric defibrillators. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, takes this theory one step further and begins actually experimenting with electricity on dead animals, often before an audience. His experiment on a dog in front of French scientists was even recorded: “Aldini, after having cut off the head of a dog passed the current of a strong battery: the mere contact triggers truly frightful convulsions. The mouth opens, teeth rattle, eyes roll in their sockets; and if reason did not deter the agitated imagination, one would almost believe that the animal is again suffering and alive.”
Sarah: Aldini wanted to understand what he called the “human animal machine.” Just there you see the shift in language: thinking of the human body as on the same level as an animal, as easily understandable as a machine that can be taken apart and tinkered with; nothing especially human, divine or divinely designed. Aldini, like Vesalius, eventually got permission to experiment on cadavers after execution.
One time, Aldini was brought the body of George Foster, who had been convicted for murdering his wife and child. In front of a medical audience, Aldini performed an experiment on the man by applying electricity to his face. According to observers, “the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye actually opened.” Aldini did the same thing to the arms and legs, which contorted and shook.
Marissa: During another experiment, “Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face.” Galvani, Aldini and their observers knew that they were not bringing them all the way back to life but the potential seemed like it was there. The corpses were smiling, frowning, seeming as though they were alive. Perhaps they were almost alive, maybe the next step would bring them all the way back to life.
We know that Mary Shelley knew about these experiments because she wrote about them in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. She wrote more about Galvanism than Aldini, but her readers would certainly have recognized elements of the text as having been inspired by him.
Sarah: But on the other side of this equation was how regular people thought about bodies and death. Death was an important rite for a person and their family. In Europe and the US, people believed deaths should occur in particular ways. Beautiful deaths were attended by the family, maybe a religious figure. Despite the growing visibility of Deism and atheism, most evidence suggests that ordinary folks still believed in God and death was, for them, a religious experience. Death was a sacred moment; dying people were understood to be in an in-between place between this world and the next.
This concept became even more significant during the transatlantic waves of religious revival that rocked Europe and the Americas in the 1730/1740s, and again in the first half of the 19th century. If Romanticism was the secular response to Enlightenment rationalism, the Second Great Awakening was its religious analogue.
Marissa: In the 19th century, people begin to think about heaven as a literal place – where you will be you, not just a disembodied soul. We talked about this in our recent Cult of the Dead episode. People believed that your actual body would go to heaven, where it would enjoy eternal joy and peace, living in paradise alongside your loved ones. One reason why people resisted cremation for a very long time, until really late in the 20th century, was this belief. If your body was destroyed, burned into ash, how would you function in Heaven?
The importance of a beautiful death and the preservation of the human body for its life in Heaven is obvious in another 19th-century literary masterwork, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (published in 1852). Take this passage:
“The bed was draped in white; and there, beneath the drooping angel-figure, lay a little sleeping form, – sleeping never to waken! There she lay, robed in one of the simple white dresses she had been wont to wear when living, the rose-colored light through the curtain cast over the icy coldness of death a warm glow. The heavy eyelashes drooped softly on the pure cheek; the head was turned a little to one side, as if in natural sleep, but there was diffused over every lineament of the face that high celestial expression, that mingling of rapture and repose, which showed it was no earthly or temporary sleep, but the long, sacred rest whith “He giveth his beloved. There is no death to such as thou, Eva! Neither darkness not shadow of death; only such a bright fading as when the morning start fades in the gold dawn. Thine is the victory without the battle – the crown without the conflict.”
Sarah: This was a reference to Psalm 127: “God grants rest to his loved ones.” But in Shelley’s Frankenstein, she writes of Victor’s “profane fingers,” and his possession of “the tremendous secrets of the human frame.” It is easy to suppose that Shelley understood dissection and autopsy as a desecration of this beauty and repose.
Many others did. Dissection took away what was sacred about the body, and reduced it to parts. It also took what was private and individual and made it into something tawdry, something that was displayed for all the public to see. Dissected bodies were deprived of their identities, their individuality, and their sacredness. For many Europeans and Americans, this was akin to rape: the forceful desecration and penetration of the body, an act of degradation.
Marissa: When Shelley writes about “the tremendous secrets of the human frame” she’s reminding the reader of an earlier passage in the book where she refers to “nature’s hiding places.” She provocatively poses the question: Is there a reason this stuff is secret and hidden? Should we know this? However, medical schools and anatomy classes weren’t going away. In Shelley’s time, anatomical specimens were in greater demand than ever before.
Medical schools often arranged with local authorities to receive the bodies of executed criminals; this was especially common in Europe which had centuries-old medico-legal structures and procedures. In America, there were smaller concentrations of population and a newer, less developed medico-legal structure. There were, therefore, fewer executions, making bodies in even greater demand there.
Sarah: American Medical schools, which grew rapidly in the antebellum period, often relied on extralegal means of getting bodies: grave robbing or bodysnatching. This is pretty much exactly what Victor Frankenstein did in the book.
Doctors themselves were not doing the digging and collecting. They outsourced this to men who were often called “resurrection men.” They were often working class or poor men who struck a deal with an anatomy professor at a local medical college, who commissioned stolen bodies. Many saw it as an easy way to make a few dollars.
Where are resurrection men getting their bodies? Not the rich people cemeteries! Almshouses, pauper’s graves, in the US, cemeteries that held black and Native Americans. They reasoned that these were the bodies that were less likely to be monitored in the first place and then discovered missing after the theft.
Marissa: Occasionally, local folks would discover that this was taking place, or rumors would spread about doctors exhuming bodies that the community believed cross the line. We see some sporadic panics that were induced by both real and imagined bodysnatching. For example, there we see this in NYC in 1788.
A group of kids playing near NY Hospital saw a medical student named John Hicks dissecting a disembodied arm. The kids were scared but fascinated, and gathered at the window to see what he was up to. Annoyed by their voyeurism, Hicks waved the arm at the boys and said that the arm belonged to one of the boys’ mom, who had just passed away.
Sarah: The boy ran home and told his father, who dug up his wife’s grave and found her body missing. Horrified, he gathered up a crowd to go storm the hospital. When they arrived and broke in, they found the dissecting rooms full of decomposing, anatomized corpses. The mob pulled the corpses and other anatomical specimens out of the building, and set them on fire. Again, depending on their perspective, this meant different things: destroying items of sacrilege, or destroying precious scientific knowledge.
The mob then ran through the streets of NYC, breaking into hospitals and medical schools, searching for bodies. They attacked medical students at Columbia College, throwing rocks and bricks at doctors and medical schools. They shouted “bring out your doctors!” Governor of NY George Clinton called out the militia, who ended up firing on the crowds to get them to turn back. Somewhere around 20 people were killed. There was a grand jury investigation, but never a trial or conviction.
Marissa: After this riot, Americans were paranoid that their loved ones’ bodies would be spirited away under the cover of night to be used in horrific scientific experiments. People stood guard over the graves of their loved ones. This had a profound impact on the medical profession in America. It bred distrust and anger toward doctors. Some medical doctors paid for advertisements that swore they had never “robbed any cemetery in the city.” Of course, this was a clever word play – most got their bodies from cemeteries outside the boundaries of the city.
Sarah: This NY bodysnatching riot was not an isolated incident. Between 1765 and 1854, in the US, there were 17 anatomy riots. In some cases, the quest for dead bodies went beyond grave robbing. In the 1820s, there was a very prominent anatomist at the University of Edinburgh, which was one of Europe’s leading medical schools named Robert Knox. We tell some of Knox’s story in our Pathology episode but we’ll do a quick recap here.
According to Scottish law, medical schools could have access to bodies from certain categories: suicide victims, prisoners, and orphans. Even so, there were still never enough bodies to meet demand. Knox was a world-renowned anatomy professor and taught up to 400 students at a time.
Marissa: Part of his draw was that he promised his students “a full demonstration on fresh anatomical subjects” at each lecture. In other words, he promised to always have plenty of cadavers to dissect. This meant that Knox had little choice but to resort to purchasing cadavers from resurrection men. At the same time, two men – William Burke and William Hare – two Irishmen living in Edinburgh, found themselves with a dead body. A lodger in Hare’s house died of natural causes. Burial would be expensive, so after discussing their options, they decided to recoup Hare’s loss of lodging income and sell the body.
Sarah: Burke and Hare successfully sold the body to Robert Knox, who gave them a decent sum for it. Eventually, they decided that this was a lucrative practice but it was also too onerous to wait around for folks to die. Why not cut out that middle step? The pair ended up killing around 16 people, ranging from a young boy to elderly men and women, mostly poor people or travelers who wouldn’t be missed.
They finally get caught when they suffocated a woman named Margaret Docherty, who they hid under the bed. She was discovered when some previous lodgers returned to gather something they’d left behind. They found the woman, and notified the police. It goes without saying that this caused a media sensation. Burk and Hare were charged with murder, but Knox was not held legally responsible for the crimes, even though everyone knew he was the one paying for and benefitting from them.
Marissa: It is hard to differentiate between libel and investigative journalism so even today, historians wonder if Knox knew his specimens were murder victims. Some historians have even argued that Knox committed murder by his own hand in some cases. That seems unlikely but he probably knew that Burke and Hare’s methods were unorthodox. They always had fresh bodies, which must have been suspicious, but he chose not to ask questions. Hare turned King’s evidence and was immune from prosecution if he gave the police Burke, which he did. Hare got off scot free.
Burke was hanged Jan 28, 1829 in front of a very large crowd. His body was publicly dissecting just a few days after by a professor (not Knox) at U of Edinburgh. Public crowds were allowed to enter the dissecting theater after the procedure to see the body. The professor at one point dipped his pen in Burke’s blood and wrote in his notes: “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.”
Sarah: The body was then given to the Anatomical Museum of the University, where it was cleaned and disarticulated. His skin was removed and tanned like leather, some of which was used to bind various items (like books, wallets). Hare disappeared into obscurity. Knox’s reputation was irreparably tarnished, and he was eventually forced to leave the university, but continued to work as an anatomist at a hospital in England.
As we discussed in our Pathology episode, it was common for criminals’ bodies to be mutilated after death as part of their punishment. This explains the fate of Burke’s body. Authorities meant to give him the insult of having his body put on display, denied a decent burial and funeral, to desecrate and degrade his body like those who he had murdered.
Marissa: Anatomy was a major point of contention between doctors and lay people; but it was also the one thing that differentiated medical doctors from ordinary people. Doctors had the power and the ability to look inside the human body, the power of life and death, the power to understand the inner workings of the human body – a power that had previously been attributed only to God.
So to readers, Frankenstein symbolized more than just a scary story. It homed in on the things they worried about most, as people living in the “Western” world in the first half of the 19th century: gender roles, scientific progress, medical research, radical politics, and the contest between spirituality or the divine on the one hand and rationality or progress on the other.
 Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796), ch. 1, para. vi, quoted by Lee Sterrenburg in Levine and Knoepflmacher, 1979, 143.
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