In October and November of 1816, as she worked on the story that eventually became Frankenstein, Mary was reading Humphry Davy’s book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, according to literary historian Martin Garrett. This suggests that Mary was actively consulting contemporary scientific sources during the period in which she was drafting Frankenstein. This is particularly critical here in Volume I, Chapter 1, wherein Victor details his college years and his relationships with his professors, M. Krempe and M. Waldman. Mary’s father William Godwin knew Davy well—Davy was both an accomplished scientist and a poet, and he was a frequent guest at Mary’s childhood home. Godwin published Davy’s poetry in his 1810 collection The Poetical Class-Book, alongside legendary poets including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Helen Maria Williams, and Lord Byron.
Don’t get me wrong—I am a Loyal Disciple of The Scientific Method—but I’m also a firm believer in the ability of seemingly outlandish ideas to transform a discipline. I have tremendous respect for researchers who are willing to put themselves on the line and push the envelope on topics most of us are too nervous to tackle.
Want to learn more about the tensions between lab science and philosophy? Read the complete essay by Ashley Juavinett, postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
A major rationale for the autonomy of science and scientists—that is, their ability to make their own choices free from interference by governments or lay people—in their pursuit of knowledge is the presumed certainty of the superior instrumental outcome of that pursuit, regardless of the potential presence of error or bias. According to chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, the ideal organization is “scientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment” (1962, 54).
Victor suggests a change in the ways that natural philosophy is currently employed as compared to the past. The history he creates suggest that scientists of the past held higher aspirations than his contemporaries, who, according to him, are interested in what science can show is not possible rather than pressing the human imagination forward. Because this comparison was made two centuries ago, it raises questions for modern readers about the common idea that the sciences of the past had more scope for imagination (“boundless grandeur,” as Victor puts it) than the sciences of today.
Despite his conviction about the impossibility of the quest of the masters of science for “immortality and power,” Victor finds himself drawn to the “chimeras of boundless grandeur.” The term chimera has two potential meanings captured here: the mythological Greek fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail or an illusory or impossible goal. Mary’s careful word selection allows readers to see both definitions in her usage. The concept of the chimera in modern biology (which of course would not have been known to Mary) is a single organism composed of different zygotes, which is the merger of multiple fertilized eggs; this multiple composition may happen through tissue transplant or mutation.
Many scholars argue that science and technology, especially as practiced in the West, have always been about achieving “immortality and power” (see, e.g., The Religion of Technology , where David Noble notes that from the early Middle Ages “technology came to be identified more closely with both lost perfection and the possibility of renewed perfection, and the advance of the arts took on new significance, not only as evidence of grace, but as a means of preparation for, and a sure sign of, imminent salvation” ). The Enlightenment in some ways was a profound assertion of a humanistic perspective, and the end goals of that assertion, often not stated as clearly as in this passage of the novel, have not changed that much. But before we challenge the obvious hubris, it bears remembering that the opposite has also not changed: those who do not seek immortality and power too often suffer, die young, and serve under another’s yoke.
This passage is meant to illustrate a problem with self-learning: the autodidact (someone who teaches himself or herself) may not know the appropriate texts to read or the appropriate way to evaluate them. But the passage also raises the question of whether there is any benefit to be had in reading about ways of thinking that are considered inaccurate in the current time. Are we so certain in the dominant viewpoint of the time that previous ways of thinking do not hold any use?
Much of education now is focused on applied learning, in particular technical degrees, and is intended to prepare a skilled workforce. This view was not the dominant one in Mary’s time, when learning was thought to be for the privileged and not all that useful for everyday life.
When Victor describes his grief at the death of his mother, he focuses on its impact on him. He grieves her absence rather than feeling sorrow for the pain she experienced in dying or for the experiences of life she will now miss. Victor’s grief at his mother’s death plays a central role in shaping his character going forward. It is the mirror of the creature’s experience in the novel. Victor grieves the presence of an absence—that is, his mother. The creature grieves the presence of an absence—that is, a friend, fellow, and mate. Given all that Victor knows of grief and loss, we would expect him to be more sympathetic to the creature’s plight. He seems blind to the many things he has in common with his creation. Perhaps he is willfully blind because he must continue to dehumanize his creation in order to distance himself from it and from his responsibility for it. It remains to be seen whether scientists and engineers, as creators, can afford to recognize themselves in their work or can afford not to.
The death of the mother is seen as evil, indeed as an “irreparable evil.” As a child, Mary would sit by her mother’s grave and read; this is a special form of grief that the created feel when they lose those who created them. Much of Victor’s effort in making the creature is driven by his thoughts about the evil of death, the finitude of human life. The passage here then goes on to correlate the perception of an evil as evil with its emotional impact, in this case grief. Ironically, when he succeeds in making the creature, he makes a motherless one.