Mary’s mother was the renowned philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Tragically, Wollstonecraft died on September 10, 1797, just 11 days after giving birth to Mary, of puerperal fever, a malady common after childbirth in the eighteenth century. Wollstonecraft was an immense influence on Mary and her young-adult intellectual circle (Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and others); Mary grew up revering and striving to emulate her beloved intellectual titan of a mother. In this passage, Victor recounts how his cousin and eventual spouse Elizabeth Lavenza came into his life as a child. Unlike Elizabeth, who is adopted by her uncle’s family, Mary was raised by her father William Godwin and a stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont, with whom she had a conflictual and troubled relationship.
Here, Mary plays with archetypes of scientists and poets, scrambling references and blurring the lines between these pursuits. For example, Walton is an amateur poet on a scientific voyage, while Victor was Percy Shelley’s pen name in his first published poetry. Mary’s scientists and poets share a love of nature, though they express it in different ways—one theorizes about truth, the other rhapsodizes about beauty. While both require a passionate, curious mind observing nature, the scientist tries to understand how it works and the poet tries to communicate how it feels.
Perhaps Mary used these archetypes to represent the ironies of the imagination. We know Mary’s reading list included Francis Bacon, who wrote in his Novum Organum (1620), “The present discoveries in science … lie immediately beneath the surface of common notions. It is necessary, however, to penetrate the more secret and remote parts of nature.” The imagination produces tantalizing false meanings and delusions, but at the same time, enormous feats of imagination are required to think outside existing belief systems.
Mary would also have read and reviewed the poems Percy wrote during the European tour when she conceived Frankenstein, including “Mont Blanc,” where he writes, “What were thou [Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps], and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?” In “Mont Blanc,” Percy describes how human fancies lack the reality and beauty of nature, yet in the same poem he argues that nature is meaningless without the human imagination. Our relationship with our imagination is one of many metaphors in the relationship between Victor and his creation—we create the thing that enslaves us and drives us onward.
The gratitude expressed by Victor here reflects Mary’s own respect and appreciation for her father William Godwin’s dedication to her education. As an author, political journalist, and reformer, it comes as little surprise that Godwin supported Mary’s informal education, encouraging the development of her reading and writing abilities and paying for a governess. He also frequently hosted noted scholars and writers of the period in their home, and served as her tutor for a variety of subjects. Godwin’s devotion to fostering Mary’s schooling was also influenced by the thinking of his late wife, Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Although Godwin admitted he was not following the philosophies presented in Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the attention Mary’s schooling received was, like her mother’s ideas about women’s education, radical for the time. Godwin withdrew his support when Mary eloped with Percy Shelley in 1814. However, Mary’s decision to dedicate the culmination of her youthful intellectual prowess, Frankenstein, to her father significantly improved their relationship. The modern-day inclusion of Frankenstein in countless curriculums (the book is the most-assigned novel in university courses, according to the Open Syllabus Project) continues the family’s educational legacy.
“In stark scientific terms, we know that a species with more genetic diversity is more likely to survive, because it can adapt more easily to an environment that’s constantly changing. But putting aside biology, we might still wish to create societies with more diversity and not less.
“The technology of genome editing has enormous potential to relieve suffering, and it may be that in some cases, we will decide that it is justified to remove certain mutations altogether. But as we face those decisions, we must keep in mind how hazy the line can be between benefit and detriment, disease and natural variation. In the words of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, ‘even self-improvement can be dangerous. You never know which defect holds up the whole building.’”
Want to learn more about genetic engineering, diversity, and the unexpected trickiness of the question “what is a genetic flaw”? Read the complete essay by Jackie Grimm, PhD candidate in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.
The young, rebellious, intelligent, and ambitious Victor is motivated by the search for glory and public renown. He wants to make a name for himself. He wants not just to be successful but to be brilliantly, notoriously successful. And he seeks that glorious reputation through modern natural philosophy, what we now call experimental science, the “genius that … regulate[s his] fate”. Victor’s stated goal, to create a kind of immortality, is just the kind of thing that could bring him the renown he desperately seeks.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), was a French naturalist whose multivolume work Histoire naturelle (Natural history) echoed Pliny the Elder’s. In a century in which natural historians were still attempting to understand whether and how species changed, Buffon proposed a theory that New World species, including humans, were degenerate compared to Old World species. His theory led to a heated correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, who sent samples of robust North American wildlife—including a stuffed moose—across the Atlantic to him.
Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) was a Roman naturalist and natural philosopher who published the encyclopedic text Naturalis historia (Natural history). He died in the explosion of Mount Vesuvius while attempting to help friends escape.
Dramatic encounters with natural phenomena are inspirations for scientific as well as literary imagination. This passage reconstructs the way that the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) thought that scientists come to understand natural phenomena and, in turn, use their understanding to construct technologies that make use of the same underlying processes. In describing how Victor’s father translates the mechanisms of thunder and lightning into various technologies—a small electrical machine (perhaps a galvanic pile and Leyden jar) and a kite that attracts and conducts electricity (after Benjamin Franklin’s experiment), both of which were part of Percy Shelley’s education—the passage foreshadows Victor’s eventual use of electricity to animate the creature he creates. The sense of wonder the narrator describes at witnessing the storm is important: delight, curiosity, awe, and other emotions motivate scientific inquiry by captivating the imagination and emotions. Mary likely shared some of her protagonist’s emotions as she endured the relentless rains and thunderstorms that plagued Geneva in the summer of 1816.
Accepting the failure to learn as the student’s responsibility can be described as a student-deficit model of instruction, where any gap in learning is the student’s fault and instructors are presumed to be faultless in their teaching. This perspective also represents an instructor-centered approach to teaching, where it is the student’s responsibility to listen to and learn from the instructor. It stands in stark contrast to how many view education today as a constructivist activity that should be student centered, where students are creating their own learning.
Cornelius Agrippa remains among the most intellectually compelling magical theologians and natural philosophers of his time. His magnum opus, De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three books of occult philosophy), occupied the majority of his life, starting with a juvenile manuscript dedicated to his teacher, Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim; it began to circulate in 1509–1510 and had a first printed edition in 1531 and a final edited edition in 1533. The book attained wide print circulation, appearing in German, Latin, and French editions before 1535 as well as in reprints and in English throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Agrippa’s reputation as a dark magician also grew, despite the lack of evidence to support it, and a fourth book spuriously attributed to him was in fact a book of dark magic, appearing in English in the seventeenth century and outselling the original work through the nineteenth century.
It is not clear whether Victor Frankenstein read De occulta philosophia, but his appreciation for the “theory he [Agrippa] attempts to demonstrate” (here) suggests he might have encountered the magical cosmology it contained. Agrippa embeds magic in the Creation, contending that God placed magic in the world as a system of connections, sympathies, and antipathies by which adepts could transcend the natural sphere and influence the superior realms. Although De occulta philosophia clearly engages with Neoplatonic philosophy and sees a clear path by which the study of God’s work improves the adept, it is unique in that Agrippa also includes the possibility for the living adept to transcend the natural sphere through magical work and to re-enter the godhead. Through the spiritual improvement (requiring the adept to shed human desires and ambitions) required to attain such magical skills, Agrippa believes the adept would use his magical skills to continue the world order conceived by God—perhaps seeing the adept as an important source of defense in the case of an apocalypse. It is not clear, however, what would happen if a disciplined but evil adept achieved the godhead—perhaps he could derail the order of the world. At any rate, Victor’s sense that he can equal God might have come from this text because he read it outside the context of Renaissance theology and without understanding the tremendous discipline required of a magical adept. His creature serves as an object lesson about the threats posed by undisciplined, ambition-fueled, and ego-driven science. It does not operate as a corrective to the problems of Renaissance natural philosophy solved by modern science but instead serves as evidence for the importance of the increasingly common peer-reviewed and institutionally defined investigations that came to be known as science in the early nineteenth century.
This passage implies that formal education is superior to being self-educated. Further, there is a sentiment that formal schooling can ground someone in truth and that a person trying to learn on his or her own may not be able to separate fiction from fact because he or she hasn’t been taught what is right by someone else. This is a particularly interesting way to view schooling because all schooling is biased in some way: by the curriculum developed, by the instructor’s views on that curriculum, and even by what questions the instructor entertains in the classroom. There is an assumed unbiased truth associated with formal schooling, but this assumption is flawed.
Many European alchemists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance believed that it was possible to produce an “elixir” or medicine that could prolong life or even heal all diseases. Some, including Cornelius Agrippa (Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1486–1535), associated such elixirs or medicines with the philosopher’s stone: a substance of alchemical legend that could turn metals such as lead into gold. The medieval theologian Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280) did not officially support such views, but a text called the Little Book on Alchemy that falsely purported—but was widely believed—to be by Albertus did. The texts whose ideas on alchemy and life were most influential, however, were attributed to—although likely not penned by—the Renaissance physician and iconoclast Paracelsus (1493–1541). In one of these, a work titled On the Nature of Things, the author describes the artificial creation of a little human called a “homunculus” in a process vaguely similar to Victor’s animation of “lifeless matter” (here and here). Heating a sealed flask containing putrefying semen would produce a human form after forty days, and the fully formed homunculus—which would have marvelous powers and knowledge—would be complete after forty weeks of feeding with a preparation of human blood.
Alchemy has roots in the ancient world, although the word itself comes from Arabic. It was concerned primarily with the transformation of materials, notably the transmutation of base metals such as lead and tin into gold and silver. Much historical alchemy can usefully be conceived as protochemistry and included such practices as metallurgy and the making of dyes and imitation gems. Alchemy also had a strong connection with medicine, and for some in the Renaissance it came to be associated with astrology, mysticism, and even magic. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, alchemy was increasingly viewed as a pseudoscience and the domain of charlatans. Both Victor’s father and Professor Krempe reflect this view and strongly distinguish between the modern science of chemistry and irrational, premodern alchemy.
Natural philosophy and natural philosopher were broadly encompassing terms for the theoretical and empirical inquiry into the natural world and those who conducted such inquiries. The latter was used prior to the rise of the term scientist, which was not coined until 1834, although Mary does use the word scientifical: “our family was not scientifical,” says Victor in describing the Frankensteins (here
A biography of Humphry Davy (Golinksi 2016, 1) that focuses on how Davy, who was acquainted with Mary’s father William Godwin and whose work was read by Mary, became “a scientist before there was such a thing,” uses quotations from Mary’s novel as the epigraphs to each chapter, as if to suggest that Davy’s difficulty in forging a scientific career is associated with and can be communicated by Mary’s portrayal of Victor’s similar difficulties.
This passage is about perceived momentum: the past reconstructed from the viewpoint of the present always appears to have a structure, a momentum, and an obvious path. It is this deep misconception in part that leads to optimism regarding the ability to predict the future and to manipulate the present in such a way as to achieve desired future states. But the challenges of technology and governance in an increasingly complex world mean that such optimism is both hubristic and dysfunctional. It is hubristic because it dramatically overestimates the ability of anyone, technologist or policy maker, to predict future paths of sociotechnological systems, and it is dysfunctional because it leads to becoming lost in a haze of whimsical fantasy rather than to putting effort into the difficult and constantly changing challenge of dealing ethically, responsibly, and rationally with an ever-morphing, fundamentally unpredictable, real world. You can reach back and claim there is a clear stream from your deep past to your present situation, but what you are really doing is building an entirely normative reconstruction, an arbitrary and partial one at best.
The setting for the story is Geneva, Switzerland, one of the oldest major capitals of Europe, and Victor is from one of its noblest families. He uses his scientific training to create a new life but then fails to take responsibility for loving and caring for that life. He is shocked and disgusted when his creation doesn’t turn out as he planned. Yet he is also mostly unaware that his failure to take care of his creation in turn has created the creature he fears and rejects. Mary and her family traveled in more liberal and even radical circles, and she abhorred and flaunted the conventional mores of high society. In Frankenstein, is she calling attention to the propensity of those at the top to ignore the consequences of their actions? Social status cannot fully protect individuals from unintended consequences. Scientists and engineers who are often at the highest ranks of the academy need to be more mindful of the unintended consequences of their discoveries.