Frankenstein and Science

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Chapter 1

Christa Knellwolf and Jane Goodall

When Evelyn Fox Keller wrote that ‘Frankenstein is a story first and foremost about the consequences of male ambitions to co-opt the procreative function’, she took for granted an interpretive consensus amongst late twentieth-century critical approaches to the novel. Whilst the themes had been revealed as ‘considerably more complex than we had earlier thought’, Fox Keller concludes ‘the major point remains quite simple’.1 The consensus might be characterised a little more broadly than this – as a view that the novel is about masculinity and scientific hubris – and has led to an enduring use of the title as a byword for the dangerous potential of the scientific over-reacher: It was in this vein that Isaac Asimov coined the term ‘the Frankenstein complex’ to describe the theme of his robot stories in the 1940s, and The Frankenstein Syndrome is the title for a collection of essays on genetic engineering published in 1995.2 This collection takes a very different approach to the novel, seeking to reopen the question of how science and scientific ambition are portrayed in the story by offering a range of historical perspectives, based on detailed accounts of areas of scientific knowledge that are relevant to it. Frankenstein was published in 1818, in a cultural and political climate fraught with contrary ideals. The editors of this collection take it for granted that a successful work of literature is always overdetermined and that it is neither possible nor desirable to formulate a precise and conclusive interpretation of any work of fiction. The wealth of debates and controversies that were going on at the time when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein make it an urgent task to provide a space in which these discourses can be heard once again. If we listen carefully for the contextual arguments into which the assessment of the benefits and dangers of a new discovery were embedded, we may have to relinquish the assumption (implicit in Fox Keller’s statement and explicit in the majority of late twentieth-century interpretations) that this is a novel with an anti-Promethean message. In doing so, we can gain a more complex understanding of the cross-fertilisations between radical politics and the dramas of scientific exploration. Of course, not every scientist subscribed to radical politics. But considering that most scientists investigating completely new areas of interest had very little sense of where their discoveries would lead them, questions about their consequences were uppermost in people’s minds. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, utopian thinking about the vast social benefits made possible by scientific innovation was a powerful force for good. Advances in


Christa Knellwolf and Jane Goodall

anatomy, chemistry, electricity, engineering and the exploration sciences were saving lives and creating vast new economic possibilities, besides giving rise to some of the darker forms of human exploitation associated with the industrial revolution. An intelligent appraisal of these consequences required the kind of analytical vision that strikes us in Frankenstein. * The end of the eighteenth century is a turning point often called a ‘second scientific revolution’, which Patricia Fara sees as characterized by new levels of confidence in the commercial and social impact of scientific research.3 One of the definitive influences on this cultural change was Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802). Darwin was a figure larger than life: a pragmatist and idealist, a prolific writer of exuberant verse, a polymathic inventor and a medical practitioner with an uninhibited brief to experiment on his patients. As co-founder and ‘recruiting sergeant’ for the Lunar Society from the 1760s, he presided over the most formidable powerhouse of scientific talent in eighteenth-century England.4 Members included Josiah Wedgewood (1730–95), Mathew Boulton (1728–1809), Joseph...
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