This week we are continuing our read-through of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (originally 1818, 1831) as Written by Mary Shelley. I missed posting this last Saturday due to being tired after rocking Planet Comicon for three amazing days! If you want to follow along, I am using the 1831 edition of the text. The book is in the public domain as far as I know, so if you don’t have a tangible copy handy, there are many sites that host the work for free. Feel free to add to comments, ask questions, or suggest future books for this series!
During the last edition of “Sci-Fi Book Club” a great topic was brought up in the discussion section. A reader named benmc47 posted:
“One thing I am curious about – is lightning really involved in bringing the Creature to life? I thought I recalled that the novel didn’t give a description of the actual method that Frankenstein used, and that the lightning was a film invention. It’s been years though, so maybe I’m imagining that?”
I had hastily mentioned “lightning” being the catalyst for the monster’s creation at one point in my ramblings, and realized that my mind had definitely made a few leaps of logic that I didn’t explain. The truth is that within the book itself, we are left to use our imagination as to the actual method of the monster’s creation. There are no scenes of a frantic Victor Frankenstein hoisting his patchwork corpse onto the roof adorned with lightning rods – that is purely movie license. But lightning, more specifically – electricity, is not completely absent from the work. Today we will look at Victor’s scientific upbringing, and how that probably leads him down the path of creating the monster in a way that isn’t too far from the method depicted in the films. It could even be said that the film depiction was simply a “modernized” version of what was in the book.
Most of the somewhat brief chapter two concentrates on Victor’s young life and how two thunderstorms made him the very man that he would later become. At a very young age, Victor was not what most would call a “normal boy” rather than playing and doing other childish things, he became obsessed with metaphysics and obtuse ideas like the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. He looked on at what Elizabeth and Henry were up to and somehow saw himself as superior. He states that his family did not really echo his yearning to answer all of life’s questions, so he went on a quest for all of the knowledge that he could attain.
“My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”
While forced to stay inside during a horrible storm at age 13, Victor began reading old science textbooks in his house, to pass the time. As a result Victor became obsessed with the works of three men: Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. Victor read these medieval scripts more-or-less secretly since he discovered that they were very much out-of-vogue in modern times (his father ridiculed his interest somewhat). All three authors were, in fact, noteworthy alchemists that were looking for a way to create eternal life. It was a wide held legend that Magnus was even able to create a fabled “philosopher’s stone” something supposedly able to transmute base metals into gold.
“When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy’s apprehensions as tyros engaged in the same pursuit.”
At age 15, Victor witnessed something that basically changed his life forever – the destructive nature of electricity in the form of a second lightning storm:
“As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.”
During this thunderstorm, he learns of a new scientific theory, Galvanism. The book quickly glosses over this, assuming the reader knows every intricacy of this topic, but this inclusion is VERY important because this is most likely the sort of experiment performed later in the story. To summarize, Galvanism is named after the scientist Luigi Galvani, who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780s and 1790s. His nephew Giovanni Aldini took this even further, believing that one could re-animate the dead using electricity made with chemical reactions – something called “electro-stimulation”. His most famous public demonstration of the electro-stimulation technique was when he made a recently hanged criminal twitch and writhe around, a feat so alarming that one man reportedly died of fright.
This is basically Frankenstein’s origin story – after an upbringing of reading alchemical texts and occultist medical books, Victor is obsessed with learning the meaning of life and how to go past the limits of what it means to be human and enter nature. The theme of “lightning” as the embodiment of nature comes up many times in this book. It can be said that controlling nature is a pursuit of science. How often do hear about scientist trying to create weather, or alter it, to benefit humanity? perhaps as a weapon? One could surmise that control over nature would lead to omnipotence, perhaps Godhood. This was even a hot topic at the time of Shelley, as we were ever so close to being able to harness electricity.
Frankenstein is forced to pursue what sees as more mundane pursuits such as mathematics and natural sciences, but he never gives up on what he learned the night nature utterly destroyed a tree right in front of him. Perhaps if nature can remove life, it can bring it back? So the question still stands – “Did Frankenstein use electricity in his experiment?” – I believe so. The book goes to such great lengths showing all of the lightning symbolism at every turn, I think it would be foolish to assume that he did anything other than a mixture of alchemy and galvanism. Perhaps we’ll revisit chapter two when we make it to the actual creation of the creature, just to see if my theory still holds up.
Join me again next week for the third Chapter Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus