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Preface

Published onJun 17, 2019
Preface
·

Volume I.



Preface

The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it developes; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.

I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations. The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece,—Shakespeare, in the Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream,—and most especially Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule; and the most humble novelist, who seeks to confer or receive amusement from his labours, may, without presumption, apply to prose fiction a licence, or rather a rule, from the adoption of which so many exquisite combinations of human feeling have resulted in the highest specimens of poetry.

The circumstance on which my story rests was suggested in casual conversation. It was commenced, partly as a source of amusement, and partly as an expedient for exercising any untried resources of mind. Other motives were mingled with these, as the work proceeded. I am by no means indifferent to the manner in which whatever moral tendencies exist in the sentiments or characters it contains shall affect the reader; yet my chief concern in this respect has been limited to the avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day, and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue. The opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.

It is a subject also of additional interest to the author, that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid, and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story, founded on some supernatural occurrence.

The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.



Letter I.

To Mrs. SAVILLE, England.

St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday; and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Peters-burgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my day dreams become more fervent and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There—for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phænomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. But, supposing all these conjectures to be false, you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many months are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet, which, if at all possible, can only be effected by an undertaking such as mine.

These reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my letter, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose,—a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years. I have read with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole. You may remember, that a history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good uncle Thomas’s library. My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study day and night, and my familiarity with them increased that regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father’s dying injunction had forbidden my uncle to allow me to embark in a sea-faring life.


These visions faded when I perused, for the first time, those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven. I also became a poet, and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated. You are well acquainted with my failure, and how heavily I bore the disappointment. But just at that time I inherited the fortune of my cousin, and my thoughts were turned into the channel of their earlier bent.

Six years have passed since I resolved on my present undertaking. I can, even now, remember the hour from which I dedicated myself to this great enterprise. I commenced by inuring my body to hardship. I accompanied the whale-fishers on several expeditions to the North Sea; I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, and want of sleep; I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day, and devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and those branches of physical science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest practical advantage. Twice I actually hired myself as an under-mate in a Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself to admiration. I must own I felt a little proud, when my captain offered me the second dignity in the vessel, and entreated me to remain with the greatest earnestness; so valuable did he consider my services.

And now, dear Margaret, do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose. My life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh, that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative! My courage and my resolution is firm; but my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are often depressed. I am about to proceed on a long and difficult voyage; the emergencies of which will demand all my fortitude: I am required not only to raise the spirits of others, but sometimes to sustain my own, when their’s are failing.

This is the most favourable period for travelling in Russia. They fly quickly over the snow in their sledges; the motion is pleasant, and, in my opinion, far more agreeable than that of an English stage-coach. The cold is not excessive, if you are wrapt in furs, a dress which I have already adopted; for there is a great difference between walking the deck and remaining seated motionless for hours, when no exercise prevents the blood from actually freezing in your veins. I have no ambition to lose my life on the post-road between St. Petersburgh and Archangel.

I shall depart for the latter town in a fortnight or three weeks; and my intention is to hire a ship there, which can easily be done by paying the insurance for the owner, and to engage as many sailors as I think necessary among those who are accustomed to the whale-fishing. I do not intend to sail until the month of June: and when shall I return? Ah, dear sister, how can I answer this question? If I succeed, many, many months, perhaps years, will pass before you and I may meet. If I fail, you will see me again soon, or never.

Farewell, my dear, excellent, Margaret. Heaven shower down blessings on you, and save me, that I may again and again testify my gratitude for all your love and kindness.

Your affectionate brother,

R. WALTON.

Letter II.

To Mrs. SAVILLE, England.

Archangel, 28th March, 17—.

How slowly the time passes here, encompassed as I am by frost and snow; yet a second step is taken towards my enterprise. I have hired a vessel, and am occupied in collecting my sailors; those whom I have already engaged appear to be men on whom I can depend, and are certainly possessed of dauntless courage.

But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! I am too ardent in execution, and too impatient of difficulties. But it is a still greater evil to me that I am self-educated: for the first fourteen years of my life I ran wild on a common, and read nothing but our uncle Thomas’s books of voyages. At that age I became acquainted with the celebrated poets of our own country; but it was only when it had ceased to be in my power to derive its most important benefits from such a conviction, that I perceived the necessity of becoming acquainted with more languages than that of my native country. Now I am twenty-eight, and am in reality more illiterate than many school-boys of fifteen. It is true that I have thought more, and that my day dreams are more extended and magnificent; but they want (as the painters call it) keeping; and I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind.

Well, these are useless complaints; I shall certainly find no friend on the wide ocean, nor even here in Archangel, among merchants and seamen. Yet some feelings, unallied to the dross of human nature, beat even in these rugged bosoms. My lieutenant, for instance, is a man of wonderful courage and enterprise; he is madly desirous of glory. He is an Englishman, and in the midst of national and professional prejudices, unsoftened by cultivation, retains some of the noblest endowments of humanity. I first became acquainted with him on board a whale vessel: finding that he was unemployed in this city, I easily engaged him to assist in my enterprise.

The master is a person of an excellent disposition, and is remarkable in the ship for his gentleness, and the mildness of his discipline. He is, indeed, of so amiable a nature, that he will not hunt (a favourite, and almost the only amusement here), because he cannot endure to spill blood. He is, moreover, heroically generous. Some years ago he loved a young Russian lady, of moderate fortune; and having amassed a considerable sum in prize-money, the father of the girl consented to the match. He saw his mistress once before the destined ceremony; but she was bathed in tears, and, throwing herself at his feet, entreated him to spare her, confessing at the same time that she loved another, but that he was poor, and that her father would never consent to the union. My generous friend reassured the suppliant, and on being informed of the name of her lover instantly abandoned his pursuit. He had already bought a farm with his money, on which he had designed to pass the remainder of his life; but he bestowed the whole on his rival, together with the remains of his prize-money to purchase stock, and then himself solicited the young woman’s father to consent to her marriage with her lover. But the old man decidedly refused, thinking himself bound in honour to my friend; who, when he found the father inexorable, quitted his country, nor returned until he heard that his former mistress was married according to her inclinations. “What a noble fellow!” you will exclaim. He is so; but then he has passed all his life on board a vessel, and has scarcely an idea beyond the rope and the shroud.

But do not suppose that, because I complain a little, or because I can conceive a consolation for my toils which I may never know, that I am wavering in my resolutions. Those are as fixed as fate; and my voyage is only now delayed until the weather shall permit my embarkation. The winter has been dreadfully severe; but the spring promises well, and it is considered as a remarkably early season; so that, perhaps, I may sail sooner than I expected. I shall do nothing rashly; you know me sufficiently to confide in my prudence and considerateness whenever the safety of others is committed to my care.

I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart. I am going to unexplored regions, to “the land of mist and snow”; but I shall kill no albatross, therefore do not be alarmed for my safety.

Shall I meet you again, after having traversed immense seas, and returned by the most southern cape of Africa or America? I dare not expect such success, yet I cannot bear to look on the reverse of the picture. Continue to write to me by every opportunity: I may receive your letters (though the chance is very doubtful) on some occasions when I need them most to support my spirits. I love you very tenderly. Remember me with affection should you never hear from me again.

Your affectionate brother,

ROBERT WALTON.

Letter III.

To Mrs. SAVILLE, England.

July 7th, 17—.

MY DEAR SISTER,

I write a few lines in haste, to say that I am safe, and well advanced on my voyage. This letter will reach England by a merchant-man now on its homeward voyage from Archangel; more fortunate than I, who may not see my native land, perhaps, for many years. I am, however, in good spirits: my men are bold, and apparently firm of purpose; nor do the floating sheets of ice that continually pass us, indicating the dangers of the region towards which we are advancing, appear to dismay them. We have already reached a very high latitude; but it is the height of summer, and although not so warm as in England, the southern gales, which blow us speedily towards those shores which I so ardently desire to attain, breathe a degree of renovating warmth which I had not expected.

No incidents have hitherto befallen us, that would make a figure in a letter. One or two stiff gales, and the breaking of a mast, are accidents which experienced navigators scarcely remember to record; and I shall be well content, if nothing worse happen to us during our voyage.

Adieu, my dear Margaret. Be assured, that for my own sake, as well as your’s, I will not rashly encounter danger. I will be cool, persevering, and prudent.

Remember me to all my English friends.

Most affectionately yours,

R. W.


Letter IV.

To Mrs. SAVILLE, England.

August 5th, 17—.

So strange an accident has happened to us, that I cannot forbear recording it, although it is very probable that you will see me before these papers can come into your possession.

Last Monday (July 31st), we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the sea room in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were compassed round by a very thick fog. We accordingly lay to, hoping that some change would take place in the atmosphere and weather.

About two o’clock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention, and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile: a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge, and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice.

This appearance excited our unqualified wonder. We were, as we believed, many hundred miles from any land; but this apparition seemed to denote that it was not, in reality, so distant as we had supposed. Shut in, however, by ice, it was impossible to follow his track, which we had observed with the greatest attention.

About two hours after this occurrence, we heard the ground sea; and before night the ice broke, and freed our ship. We, however, lay to until the morning, fearing to encounter in the dark those large loose masses which float about after the breaking up of the ice. I profited of this time to rest for a few hours.

In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck, and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to some one in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night, on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it, whom the sailors were persuading to enter the vessel. He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European. When I appeared on deck, the master said, “Here is our captain, and he will not allow you to perish on the open sea.”

On perceiving me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent. “Before I come on board your vessel,” said he, “will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?”

You may conceive my astonishment on hearing such a question addressed to me from a man on the brink of destruction, and to whom I should have supposed that my vessel would have been a resource which he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford. I replied, however, that we were on a voyage of discovery towards the northern pole.

Upon hearing this he appeared satisfied, and consented to come on board. Good God! Margaret, if you had seen the man who thus capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin; but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air, he fainted. We accordingly brought him back to the deck, and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy, and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he shewed signs of life, we wrapped him up in blankets, and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen-stove. By slow degrees he recovered, and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.

Two days passed in this manner before he was able to speak; and I often feared that his sufferings had deprived him of understanding. When he had in some measure recovered, I removed him to my own cabin, and attended on him as much as my duty would permit. I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness; but there are moments when, if any one performs an act of kindness towards him, or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing; and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him.

When my guest was a little recovered, I had great trouble to keep off the men, who wished to ask him a thousand questions; but I would not allow him to be tormented by their idle curiosity, in a state of body and mind whose restoration evidently depended upon entire repose. Once, however, the lieutenant asked, Why he had come so far upon the ice in so strange a vehicle?

His countenance instantly assumed an aspect of the deepest gloom; and he replied, “To seek one who fled from me.”

“And did the man whom you pursued travel in the same fashion?”

“Yes.”

“Then I fancy we have seen him; for, the day before we picked you up, we saw some dogs drawing a sledge, with a man in it, across the ice.”

This aroused the stranger’s attention; and he asked a multitude of questions concerning the route which the dæmon, as he called him, had pursued. Soon after, when he was alone with me, he said, “I have, doubtless, excited your curiosity, as well as that of these good people; but you are too considerate to make inquiries.”

“Certainly; it would indeed be very impertinent and inhuman in me to trouble you with any inquisitiveness of mine.”

“And yet you rescued me from a strange and perilous situation; you have benevolently restored me to life.”

Soon after this he inquired, if I thought that the breaking up of the ice had destroyed the other sledge? I replied, that I could not answer with any degree of certainty; for the ice had not broken until near midnight, and the traveller might have arrived at a place of safety before that time; but of this I could not judge.

From this time the stranger seemed very eager to be upon deck, to watch for the sledge which had before appeared; but I have persuaded him to remain in the cabin, for he is far too weak to sustain the rawness of the atmosphere. But I have promised that some one should watch for him, and give him instant notice if any new object should appear in sight.

Such is my journal of what relates to this strange occurrence up to the present day. The stranger has gradually improved in health, but is very silent, and appears uneasy when any one except myself enters his cabin. Yet his manners are so conciliating and gentle, that the sailors are all interested in him, although they have had very little communication with him. For my own part, I begin to love him as a brother; and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable.

I said in one of my letters, my dear Margaret, that I should find no friend on the wide ocean; yet I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed as the brother of my heart.

I shall continue my journal concerning the stranger at intervals, should I have any fresh incidents to record.

August 13th, 17—.

My affection for my guest increases every day. He excites at once my admiration and my pity to an astonishing degree. How can I see so noble a creature destroyed by misery without feeling the most poignant grief? He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated; and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence.

He is now much recovered from his illness, and is continually on the deck, apparently watching for the sledge that preceded his own. Yet, althoughunhappy, he is not so utterly occupied by his own misery, but that he interests himself deeply in the employments of others. He has asked me many questions concerning my design; and I have related my little history frankly to him. He appeared pleased with the confidence, and suggested several alterations in my plan, which I shall find exceedingly useful. There is no pedantry in his manner; but all he does appears to spring solely from the interest he instinctively takes in the welfare of those who surround him. He is often overcome by gloom, and then he sits by himself, and tries to overcome all that is sullen or unsocial in his humour. These paroxysms pass from him like a cloud from before the sun, though his dejection never leaves him. I have endeavoured to win his confidence; and I trust that I have succeeded. One day I mentioned to him the desire I had always felt of finding a friend who might sympathize with me, and direct me by his counsel. I said, I did not belong to that class of men who are offended by advice. “I am self-educated, and perhaps I hardly rely sufficiently upon my own powers. I wish therefore that my companion should be wiser and more experienced than myself, to confirm and support me; nor have I believed it impossible to find a true friend.”

“I agree with you,” replied the stranger, “in believing that friendship is not only a desirable, but a possible acquisition. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and am entitled, therefore, to judge respecting friendship. You have hope, and the world before you, and have no cause for despair. But I——I have lost every thing, and cannot begin life anew.”

As he said this, his countenance became expressive of a calm settled grief, that touched me to the heart. But he was silent, and presently retired to his cabin.

Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit, that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.

Will you laugh at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? If you do, you must have certainly lost that simplicity which was once your characteristic charm. Yet, if you will, smile at the warmth of my expressions, while I find every day new causes for repeating them.

August 19th, 17—.

Yesterday the stranger said to me, “You may easily perceive, Captain Walton, that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined, once, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. I do not know that the relation of my misfortunes will be useful to you, yet, if you are inclined, listen to my tale. I believe that the strange incidents connected with it will afford a view of nature, which may enlarge your faculties and understanding. You will hear of powers and occurrences, such as you have been accustomed to believe impossible: but I do not doubt that my tale conveys in its series internal evidence of the truth of the events of which it is composed.”

You may easily conceive that I was much gratified by the offered communication; yet I could not endure that he should renew his grief by a recital of his misfortunes. I felt the greatest eagerness to hear the promised narrative, partly from curiosity, and partly from a strong desire to ameliorate his fate, if it were in my power. I expressed these feelings in my answer.

“I thank you,” he replied, “for your sympathy, but it is useless; my fate is nearly fulfilled. I wait but for one event, and then I shall repose in peace. I understand your feeling,” continued he, perceiving that I wished to interrupt him; “but you are mistaken, my friend, if thus you will allow me to name you; nothing can alter my destiny: listen to my history, and you will perceive how irrevocably it is determined.”

He then told me, that he would commence his narrative the next day when I should be at leisure. This promise drew from me the warmest thanks. I have resolved every night, when I am not engaged, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be engaged, I will at least make notes. This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure: but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day!

Comments
116
MR
Marianne Raab: Read Ron Broglio’s annotation above, then respond by discussing an instance when a friend connected you either socially, or to an aspect of government, or to scientific exploration.
MR
Marianne Raab: Relating to the above annotation by Joey Eshrich, when was the last time you wrote a letter? Have you recently invested time and effort in any endeavor that provided release from emotional stress or communicated with anyone recently verbally or in writing, that had this effect?
MR
Marianne Raab: Have you ever told a ghost story or written one? If so, do you remember how it began?
Mary ShelleyPhilosophy & PoliticsTechnology
Damien Williams: As Charles E. Robinson notes, in his introduction, Mary’s choice of the word “dæmon” throughout the text is deliberate, and not necessarily intended to mean “an evil beast.” Though this spelling seems archaic, if we follow its transformation over time, we can better understand how the term signals Mary’s understanding of the creature, and we can make connections to our modern-day technology, including computing. The Greek word “Δαιμον,” or “Daimon,” meant “divine spirit,” “soul,” or any supernatural entity other than a god. In his Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle used the word “Ευδαιμονια” or “eu-daimonia” to mean “a good spirit,” or a human soul in harmony as a result of cultivating a virtuous character. When the Romans came, the word “δαιμον” became “dæmon,” which was later simplified to “demon” as a result of the Neo-Latin turn beginning in the fourteenth century. But religion and culture changed along with language. As Christianity spread and the Roman Empire gave rise to the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the metaphysical implications of words were altered. “Demons” could no longer be neutral spirits. There was good, and there was Evil, and that meant that anything not sent by God must be evil. A Greek word for “Spirits From God” had already been adopted (“Αγγελος” or “Angel”), so Demons became Evil Spirits. As Mary was versed in Latin and Greek language and history as well as Christian traditions, it is likely that she would have known most of this, leading to her intentional usage of the term. She wanted her readers to understand the otherworldly awe the creature is meant to inspire—a being made to be like us, but also powerful and alien.We still use the word “dæmon” today: It is the name we give to any automated process running in the background of a computer system. If you’ve ever received a bounced email, then you’ve encountered the Mailer-Daemon. Though the name comes the Maxwell’s demon thought experiment, in which a small spirit sits in the background of the universe, computer Dæmons are born of an operation whereby a “parent” process splits off a “child” and then “orphans” it, to complete its operations in the background of the world. As we think about animating spirits, orphaned children, and computer programs, it might behoove us to think more carefully about how we engage with the digital offspring we are generating today. Though it may possess a powerful and even unpredictable nature, a dæmon is not necessarily evil; it merely requires care and cultivation to understand.
Health & MedicinePhilosophy & Politics
EZ
Emily Zarka: Captain Walton’s method of resuscitating Victor would have been familiar to Mary’s readers. In 1774, the Royal Humane Society of Britain was formed under the original title “The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned.” This group developed techniques to aid people in restoring consciousness to those they believed to be victims of sudden death by drowning, stroke, convulsions, suffocation “by noxious vapors,” or strangulation. The recommended course of treatment was best performed by at least three individuals. In addition to drying and warming the body, one person would blow air into the lungs of the victim. Meanwhile, a second attendant would force tobacco smoke into the rectum and a third would vigorously rub the body with a coarse cloth dipped in alcohol or dry salt. If the victim could swallow liquid, it was recommended that a small portion of alcohol should also be administered. The Society offered a payment of two guineas for any person who used their treatment for resuscitation. The amount increased to four guineas if the attempts were successful. These techniques were also promoted as helpful for frozen bodies, and Captain Walton’s treatment of the immobilized Victor suggests that Mary was familiar with the Society’s methods.
ScienceTechnology
LD
Lawrence Dritsas: Exploring ships since the eighteenth century are best viewed as scientific instruments in their own right, similar to the Voyager or Cassini spacecraft today. Ships are a platform for a wide variety of scientific activities, but the science must be done properly. The validity and accuracy of ships’ logs and observations is warranted and sustained by disciplined record-taking and the use of supposedly “objective” instruments of measurement. Telescopes, chronometers, and other instruments gave travel accounts a semblance of credibility that simple narrative prose did not enjoy. Walton’s expedition is further verified as an example of scientific travel through its use of telescopes. (For more information, see Richard Sorrenson’s essay “The ship as a scientific instrument in the eighteenth century.”) Further, the use of telescopes is a great narrative device here, allowing Walton and other members of the crew to observe the creature directly, without threatening him and without endangering themselves. Before we even meet Victor, the creature is an established fact in the story, even though no character has interacted with him. This gives Victor’s revelation of his story especial interest, as we already know the creature has great strength and endurance.
Philosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: During times of war, British ships were entitled to take enemy vessels, including merchant vessels, as “prizes.” The prizes belonged to the crown, but the captain and crew were awarded some portion of the value of the ship and merchandise as prize-money as a way to create incentives for the taking of such ships. A Prize Court determined whether the ship was properly captured and how much would be distributed and to whom. Payouts depended upon a sailor’s rank and function on the capturing ship. Many a sailor made significant sums in prize-money, but, as sailors are wont to do, many squandered their prizes as quickly as they earned them. Thus, the phrase “spending money like a drunken sailor” contains an implicit reference to prize-money, though it is by no means limited to such funds.
Science
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Robert Oppenheimer: “Keeping” in this passage means perspective. Realistic pictures keep the proper relation of near and distant objects, and of important and unimportant features. For a contemporary source on “keeping” and painting, see William Gilpin’s An essay upon prints (1792).
Science
LD
Lawrence Dritsas: Mary publishes this fictional account of Arctic exploration in the same year (1818) that saw a British attempt to reach the North Pole and traverse the Northwest Passage that was unsuccessful, but nonetheless rekindled interest in the Arctic (for more on 1818 as a watershed year in Arctic exploration, see Adriana Craciun’s book Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration). In this passage, Walton equates his search for a route to lands near the North Pole with the search for the Northwest Passage, and reveals his inspiration from reading travel accounts, a favorite pastime of Enlightenment scholars. Given her rich education directed by a free-thinking father, William Godwin, Mary was certainly aware of the voyages of James Cook and George Vancouver to the North Pacific in the 1770s and 1780s, and the many reports of whalers in the North Atlantic (whom she has Walton join in his youth). Ice appeared to block any passage to the far North, but hopes remained in the early nineteenth century that a route may yet exist through the uncharted region, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific more directly. Mary might be recalling her own freedom to read about exploration in a well-stocked domestic library when Walton writes, “My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading.”
Science
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Lawrence Dritsas: Here Mary has Walton join an ancient discussion about the mythical land of the far North, possibly inhabited by fantastic Hyberboreans. Since antiquity the far North has been a space to imagine difference, possibility, and horror. Tales of endless days and nights followed the amber trade from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, sparking speculations into what life would be like under the North Star. Mary uses Walton’s fantasies about the far North, at odds with reasoned conclusions, to examine the passions that may lead a person to explore beyond the borders of humanity, and possibly human decency, in the name of science.
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Donald Fleming: Walton’s statements—here and below where he mentions that in Arctic regions “snow and frost are banished” and anticipates “sailing over a calm sea,” —refer to the theory of an open polar sea advanced by some seamen and geographers. This sea was supposed to exist beyond the belt of ice, nearer to the pole itself. In the eighteenth century, belief in it was waning, but in the 1770s Daines Barrington made arguments in its favor to the Royal Society, which led to the polar expedition of Captain Phipps in 1773. Barrington republished his tracts arguing for an open polar sea in 1818, the same year that Shelley’s novel first appeared. Ironically, the theory actually gained adherents in the nineteenth century until Arctic exploration finally disproved it.
Influences & AdaptationsMary Shelley
Joey Eschrich: The collection of ghost stories that Mary Shelley and her compatriots read during the rainy, inclement summer of 1816 is Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German stories published in 1812. Learn more about the book and see page images at the British Library, and read an English translation, published in 1820 as Tales of the Dead, at the Internet Archive.
Equity & InclusionInfluences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
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Lisa Yaszek: Although Mary claims she is writing a new kind of novel without “prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind,” this passage connects Frankenstein with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a pioneering feminist manifesto by Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. In Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues that women’s unrealistic expectations about marriage and motherhood derive in large part from reading romance novels rather than being allowed to acquire formal educations that promote reason and virtue. Here, Mary takes her mother’s argument in new directions by claiming to have written a novel that provides exactly the kind of intellectual and moral education promoted by her mother and other early feminists.
Influences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyScienceTechnology
Bob Beard: Mary imagined the idea that eventually became Frankenstein at a time when the Earth’s climate was thrown off balance by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, and the weather was wildly unpredictable. Though a common reading of the novel focuses on Victor’s scientific hubris or “playing God,” the story of Frankenstein’s genesis and continuing legacy has much to say about how humans adapt to “acts of God” in the natural world, through technological innovation or artistic endeavors. In June 2016, public radio reporter and producer Eric Molinsky examined the influences underpinning Mary’s creation on his podcast Imaginary Worlds, with assistance from scholars Ron Broglio, Charlotte Gordon, and Gillen d’Arcy Wood.
Philosophy & Politics
MW
Michael White: In attempting to comfort Victor about the murder of his younger brother, Clerval invokes “the Stoics” as providing a perspective on death that should not be emulated. Indeed, the Stoic doctrine is so inhuman that not even a committed Stoic such as Cato the Younger (a first-century BCE Roman senator and opponent of Julius Caesar), could follow it.The Stoicism to which Clerval refers was an ancient philosophical school which originated with Zeno of Citium in the Hellenistic period (about 300 BCE) and extended into the Roman imperial period. There remain only fragments from the pre-Roman history of the school, collected by the German scholar Hans von Arnim in his Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (Fragments of the Ancient Stoics) in 1903–05, long after the publication of Shelley’s novel. From the imperial Roman period, we have more complete presentations of Stoicism in the works of Seneca the Younger (statesman and advisor to Nero in the first century CE), the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the former Greek slave Epictetus. During the eighteenth century, Stoicism gained some popularity as a rationalist and humanistic view of the world. Shelley’s knowledge of Stoicism would have been filtered through Cicero (the Roman republican statesman and writer of the first century BCE), whose moral and political writings were influenced by Stoicism and were well-known and well-respected in the eighteenth century, and through writers such as the eighteenth-century Anglican Bishop of Durham, Joseph Butler.Like other Hellenistic philosophical schools, Stoicism endeavored to establish a unified view of the world, in which natural philosophy (what we would call “science”), theology or “first philosophy,” and ethics and politics constitute a coherent unity. The Stoics held that the universe is determined in every detail by rational providence (identified with Zeus or fate). The only thing over which people have complete control is our reason, which partakes of the Reason with an upper-case “R” that governs the universe and which gives us a kinship with that Reason and with all other rational beings that exist. The Stoic ethical ideal is to “live in conformity to nature,” but that nature is just our rational nature. Because the only true good is virtuous/rational behavior and the only evil is vicious/irrational behavior, we must learn to be guided by reason, not by our feelings or passions, which the Stoics regarded as false beliefs. Since we cannot control what happens to us but, at the same time, we do know that it is the result of a rational (and, hence, good) providential fate, we must learn not to react to these external events with irrational passions such as anger, grief, or despair. Hence, those “maxims” to which Clerval refers: “death was no evil, and that the mind of man ought to be superior to despair on the eternal absence of a beloved object.”
Science
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Emily Zarka: Long before the term “scientist” as we understand it today was invented, individuals who used deductive reasoning to explore the natural world and its functions were referred to as “natural philosophers.” Primarily, this investigation involved the study of nature, and it ultimately led to the development of disciplines we now recognize today such as biology, physics, astronomy, and chemistry. The term “natural philosopher” was used well into the nineteenth century. Practitioners did not require formal training and although some worked in private laboratories, many of these individuals simply used the natural world to conduct their research.
Health & MedicineScience
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Emily Zarka: This description of the creature is reminiscent of the depiction of mummies during the Romantic period. Physicians and scholars would publically and privately dissect Egyptian mummies, unwrapping their bandages to examine the corpses beneath. The Western world had become fascinated with mummies and the grandeur of Ancient Egypt in the early eighteenth century, although the Napoleonic campaigns to Egypt and the subsequent artifacts and publications they produced encouraged the trend. Mummy “unwrappings” became a popular social activity, and tickets were sold to the public to view dissections of a mummified bodies. Wealthy people even hosted unwrapping parties in their homes as a form of entertainment. Published accounts of mummy examinations often included comments about the prominent display of perfectly white teeth, due to the retracted lips of the dead body. The “shriveled” appearance of the mummies’ preserved flesh and the emphasis on the sunken orbital sockets are observed in works by the physicians A.B. Granville, John Frederic Blumenbach, and Thomas “Mummy” Pettigrew. The creature’s own stretched, shriveled skin, “teeth of pearly whiteness,” and straight black lips directly reference these texts, connecting Mary’s fictional construction with the real-life appearance of mummified corpses. This demonstrates just how influential the British fascination with Egyptian culture had become, and also suggests Mary had read at least some of the scientific publications detailing mummy necropsy.
Mary Shelley
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Emily Zarka: As a child, Mary and her father would visit her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in the churchyard of St. Pancras almost every day. Godwin even taught Mary to read using her mother’s gravestone as a guide. Mary continued to visit the cemetery as she grew, and even introduced her lover and later husband Percy Bysshe Shelley to her mother during their courtship. The cemetery was a frequent spot for their secret rendezvous; the two would visit the grave and read aloud to each other from various texts, including Wollstonecraft’s own works. According to Percy Shelley’s own diary, Mary declared her love and threw herself into his arms for the first time in that very spot. Mary’s physical and verbal declaration of love at her mother’s gravesite—an unconscionable act for a Romantic-period woman—illuminates the importance of the spot to her identity and demonstrates the shared rebellious spirit of mother and daughter. Victor’s reflection that understanding the dead is necessary for conceptualizing life echoes sentiments Mary herself may have felt as she sought out her mother’s grave throughout her lifetime.  
Health & MedicinePhilosophy & Politics
EZ
Emily Zarka: Captain Walton’s method of resuscitating Victor would have been familiar to Mary’s readers. In 1774, the Royal Humane Society of Britain was formed under the original title “The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned.” This group developed techniques to aid people in restoring consciousness to those they believed to be victims of sudden death by drowning, stroke, convulsions, suffocation “by noxious vapors,” or strangulation. The recommended course of treatment was best performed by at least three individuals. In addition to drying and warming the body, one person would blow air into the lungs of the victim. Meanwhile, a second attendant would force tobacco smoke into the rectum and a third would vigorously rub the body with a coarse cloth dipped in alcohol or dry salt. If the victim could swallow liquid, it was recommended that a small portion of alcohol should also be administered. The Society offered a payment of two guineas for any person who used their treatment for resuscitation. The amount increased to four guineas if the attempts were successful. These techniques were also promoted as helpful for frozen bodies, and Captain Walton’s treatment of the immobilized Victor suggests that Mary was familiar with the Society’s methods.
Influences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
EZ
Emily Zarka: The stops Victor mentions reflect the typical itinerary of the “Grand Tour,” a popular travel route for upper-class young men beginning in the seventeenth-century, which usually spanned across France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. These travels were seen as an education in art, antiquity, and the upper echelon of “polite society.” Unsurprisingly, these trips had a larger impact, influencing trade relations and the tourism industry in all countries included in the route, as well as inspiring art, architecture, and literature. Travel was an important element in British national identity even before the Romantic period. By 1800, hundreds of guidebooks were in circulation, but the letter remained the most prolific genre of travel writing, a phenomenon Mary reflects by structuring Frankenstein in the epistolary style. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, published her own successful collection Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Journals and diaries were another popular form of travel literature, offering personal insight into British responses to foreign lands and cultures. Travel was an expensive, time-consuming activity, but published accounts enabled a larger public to experience cross-cultural exchange from the comfort of their own homes.
Mary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
EZ
Emily Zarka: 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.
Mary Shelley
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Judith Guston: This scene on the frozen sea, with cracking ice and calving icebergs causing thunderous noise and forceful motion in the ocean and the wind, is a reminder that Mary created Frankenstein during conditions of tumultuous, unexpected, and frightening weather.After the deadliest volcanic eruption on record at Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815, millions of tons of sulphur dioxide entered the stratosphere, causing clouds to circle the Earth and block sunlight. The effects of this were widespread, including aberrant weather events, crop failures, and outbreaks of disease across the globe. Meteorologists estimate that the global temperature cooled to two degrees Fahrenheit below normal in the year following the catastrophic volcanic eruption, causing 1816 to be called “The Year Without a Summer.”In the two centuries since The Year Without a Summer, global temperatures have risen two degrees above normal levels, which has inspired some scientists to consider how we might artificially recreate the effects of a similar volcanic event to reduce the effects of global, human-made (“anthropogenic”) climate change. Taking inspiration from Frankenstein, The Rosenbach created a fictional narrative based on the experimental science of geoengineering. Explore how scientists might use weather manipulation as a solution to dwindling crop yields on a Warming Planet.
ScienceTechnology
JG
Judith Guston: Victor’s methods of collecting human parts for his creature were in keeping with the ethics of the time. Teaching surgeons and anatomists frequently procured corpses for their demonstrations illegally, and the practice was rampant in Mary’s day. People who robbed graves and sold bodies to medical schools or teachers were known as “resurrection men,” as though this work could bring the dead back to life. As human knowledge of biology accumulated and developed, the increasingly blurry line between the living and the dead horrified many. In 1803, the Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini (1762–1834) performed a notorious public electrical reanimation experiment on the corpse of a dead prison inmate, a performance so grotesque that he was subsequently exiled from England. Imagery from such experiments may have had an impact on Mary’s writing—and possibly on a review of her novel, which called it “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.”In the tradition of Frankenstein, The Rosenbach created a fictional narrative experience imagining how recent discoveries in synthetic biology could lead to a future in which human limbs are grown and harvested for profit. Explore the ethics of this fictional (but increasingly plausible) technology in Body Snatchers.
Influences & AdaptationsMotivations & Sentiments
JG
Judith Guston: During Mary’s time, vampires were vicious ghosts that haunted individuals or communities—a definition altered by John Polidori’s rational and cruel yet alluring Lord Ruthven in his novella The Vampyre. Polidori’s book was the first example of vampire fiction, penned in response to the same writing challenge that inspired Mary to write Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati in 1816. Although Polidori’s novella, originally published as Byron’s Vampyre, did not enjoy the success of Frankenstein, it established one of the earliest conventions of vampire literature: the noble fiend. Varney the Vampire, a pulp “penny dreadful” serialized from 1845-47, featured an aristocrat similar to The Vampyre’s who experienced vampirism as a sickness. Later, when Bram Stoker began to sketch out his genre-defining novel Dracula, he took inspiration from Polidori’s creature, along with contemporary medical discoveries around epidemiology. This creative alchemy molded the popular image of the vampire that endures today. In the tradition of Frankenstein and Dracula, The Rosenbach created a fictional narrative experience based on the contemporary Zika virus. Explore how scientists might try to manage a future mosquito-borne illness in Bloodsuckers.
Influences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyScienceTechnology
Bob Beard: Mary imagined the idea that eventually became Frankenstein at a time when the Earth’s climate was thrown off balance by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, and the weather was wildly unpredictable. Though a common reading of the novel focuses on Victor’s scientific hubris or “playing God,” the story of Frankenstein’s genesis and continuing legacy has much to say about how humans adapt to “acts of God” in the natural world, through technological innovation or artistic endeavors. In June 2016, public radio reporter and producer Eric Molinsky examined the influences underpinning Mary’s creation on his podcast Imaginary Worlds, with assistance from scholars Ron Broglio, Charlotte Gordon, and Gillen d’Arcy Wood.
Health & MedicinePhilosophy & PoliticsScienceTechnology
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Kim Hammond: German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s risk society theory is echoed in Frankenstein. For Beck, the risk society begins when external, natural threats (like predators, food scarcity, dangerous inclement weather, or epidemics) are replaced by risks and uncertainties “manufactured” within society. Science and technology are no longer society’s response to external or natural risks, but rather are responsible for the uncertainties we face. Beck argues that where the pre-risk society’s “logic of scientific discovery presuppose[s] testing before putting into practice,” this is “breaking down in the age of risk”: Nuclear technologies have to be built in order to study their functioning and risks. Test tube babies have to be born in order to find out theories and assumptions of biotechnologies. Genetically engineered plants have to be grown in order to test the theory. The controllability of the experiment is lost. This causes serious problems … In the risk society, mistakes mean that nuclear reactors leak or explode, test tube babies are born deformed, people are killed by CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which can be contracted through tissue transplants or by eating contaminated meat].Victor “manufactures uncertainty.” He does not know what will happen before he begins his research; he creates a being whose hideousness surprises him, and he abandons the creature with no knowledge about the effects that his new, hideous creation will have on society. Frankenstein points to the potential for a risk society in the early stages of modernity, both in the kinds of “high” technology that appeared to be on the horizons of early nineteenth century science and in the social, political, and economic context within which that science was practiced. For more on the risk society theory, read Beck’s 1992 book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, and his essay “Politics of Risk Society,” in the collection The Politics of Risk Society, edited by Jane Franklin (1998).
Equity & InclusionPhilosophy & PoliticsScience
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Tiffany Trent: In her groundbreaking book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, the philosopher and historian of science Carolyn Merchant argues that Enlightenment-era science and its mandate to “wrest Nature’s secrets” is responsible for the large-scale environmental destruction at the hands of industry that our planet now faces. She particularly emphasizes the works of early scientists like Francis Bacon, who was an advocate of using experimental methods to reproduce results. While this is a taken-for-granted part of the scientific method today, it is Bacon’s framing of it that is echoed here in Mary’s phrasing. In addition to studying the natural sciences, Bacon was a legal inquisitor who tortured women accused of witchcraft, according to historian David Fideler as well as Merchant. Bacon likens scientific experimentation to “an inquisition,” and speaks in his Novum Organum, like Mary here, of “penetrating” Nature “to find a way at length into her inner chambers.” Ecofeminists argue that what Bacon and his ilk ultimately advocated was the rape of the natural world for the progress of science and industry. The penetration of Nature, as Victor discovers, can often lead to unintended, even deadly, consequences.
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
RO
Rae Ostman: Victor’s mentor M. Waldman advocates for an integrated approach to sciences, which today we often group together as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Much important scientific research today is interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and/or multidisciplinary—more simply put, it cuts across traditional fields of study. The field of STEM education is also putting more emphasis on connecting concepts across domains and developing the range of skills and practices that scientists and engineers use. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for K-12 STEM instruction identify three key dimensions to learning STEM: cross-cutting concepts, science and engineering practices, and disciplinary core ideas. Some educators argue that the NGSS (like the University of Ingolstadt in Frankenstein) do not adequately integrate societal and ethical thinking into STEM studies, as the connections among science, technology, society, and the environment are contained in an appendix, rather than integrated into the main text.
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
RO
Rae Ostman: The approach to teaching and learning that Victor describes resonates with current thinking in formal and informal education, and this kind of pedagogy can still be contrasted with “ordinary methods” that allow less individual choice and self-direction. For example, Victor and Elizabeth “had an end placed in view,” rather than learning by rote or emulation. Today, educators emphasize problem-based or project-based learning as a way to encourage active learning and better retention. (Interestingly, given Victor’s later pursuits, the modern trend for problem-based learning across the curriculum can be traced back to reforms in medical education.) Victor also recalls that their “studies were never forced,” but rather that he and Elizabeth instead were able to follow their own interests and set their own goals. Victor’s pathway to studying science is supported by educational research, which indicates that learners are motivated to use scientific methods and tools when they are appropriate means for addressing questions or problems that are important to them.
Technology
MS
Michael Simeone: The creature’s experience with language acquisition is reminiscent of the foundational ideas behind machine learning, which originated in the middle of the twentieth century and has transformed society on a global scale. Some of the biggest and most influential technology companies in the world—Facebook, Google, Apple—have used machine learning to create computer-based systems that adapt to new information as it is presented to them. From advertisements to friend matching to online search results, computers that can learn have permeated everyday life.   The concept of machine learning is intertwined with the history of computing and artificial intelligence (AI). Alan Turing’s famous test of a machine intelligence, known now as the Turing Test, features an “interrogator” that passes messages between a human subject and a computer; the interrogator is asked to make a judgment about which conversation partner is human, and which is artificial. In order to pass this test, Turing argued, a machine would have to emulate human thinking and learning. This could not happen, however, by programming a set of rules. Instead, Turing maintained that a machine could learn from practice under the supervision of a human experimenter, and through a process he likened to natural selection, adopt patterns based on the rewards or punishments of the trainer. Turing’s paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” was published in 1950. Sixty-eight years later, much of machine learning still relies on human “supervision”—that is, a human experimenter providing positive examples of the words, images, or phenomena that an artificial system is supposed to be able to identify or emulate. Modern machine learning technologies can take in new examples and use them to refine the categories and decision-making established in their initial training. Of course, this is not to say that the creature is a machine. But, most humans learn their first language over a time span of years. Here, the creature exhibits incredibly rapid language acquisition that emerges from a very structured set of observations, suggesting a kind of mental development that may be not quite—or at least not typically—human.
Technology
LF
Liz and James Fiacco: Much like the creature, recent machine learning models learn language by observing human language. Furthermore, both come into the world without innate knowledge given by their creators. Their understanding of language is solely the result of their observations of the words they hear and the contexts in which those words are uttered. They don’t choose to exist with these limitations; they simply can’t know anything else.The incomplete understanding that the creature acquires through observation is actually fairly similar to how errors are commonly made by machine learning algorithms. For instance, the creature hears the young man called “Felix,” “brother,” and “son,” but does not immediately know that one of these words is a name, while the others describe two different relationships. The creature is deprived of the necessary information to make these connections, and because Victor abandons him, he lacks a teacher to help correct these kinds of errors, which makes learning language far more difficult.Similarly, machine learning algorithms that are given human feedback or annotated data frequently learn much more quickly than those without these kinds of inputs. A supervised learning algorithm can be trained to do a more sophisticated tasks, such as determining implications between sentences, using human-annotated data.To explore machine learning and language yourself, you can play Lab Assistant, a game we created based on language processing technology, where you teach a slime creature powered by artificial intelligence how to help you solve puzzles. The creature also starts as a blank slate, only learning vocabulary as it observes how you use it. Part of our goal in designing Lab Assistant was to make an intelligence that the player is inclined to nurture, rather than abandon like the creature in Frankenstein. You can download them game here, for free. (Note: Lab Assistant currently only works on Windows machines.)
Technology
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Erin Walker: The type of learning described in this passage has been facilitated in modern times with the rise of Web 2.0 technologies, online communication technologies such as blogs and social media that connect people and allow them to participate in the generation and sharing of ideas (for more on Web 2.0 and learning, see McLouglin and Lee 2007). John Seely Brown and Richard Adler, in their article “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0,” describe how people participating in online communities learn “to be” rather than learn “about” —that is, they take on real tasks as part of these communities and develop skills related to these tasks. For example, someone might join an open-source community and improve their programming skills and habits through the process of contributing software, apprenticing under more established members of the community. These online communities also facilitate “long-tail learning,” whereby people can pursue niche interests (like cross-stitch, or Frisbee golf, or cross-stitch featuring themes from Frisbee golf) through computer-mediated connection to the small subset of people around the world that have similar interests. This new kind of socialization and information sharing is a phenomenon that would not have been possible before the advent of contemporary network technologies.
Science
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Elizabeth Denlinger: In fact, what Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) described in The Temple of Nature (1803) is the “vorticella, or wheel animal … capable of continuing alive for many months though kept in a dry state,” which, placed in water, “assumes the form of a lively maggot” and starts looking for food.
Influences & AdaptationsPhilosophy & Politics
ED
Elizabeth Denlinger: This sentence is one of the illustrative texts given in the Oxford English Dictionary for an obsolete use of the word “necessary” employed by Mary’s father William Godwin and earlier Enlightenment philosophers: “Impelled by the natural force of circumstances upon the will; having no independent volition.” That is: insofar as human beings suffer from desires beyond their basic physical needs, those desires enslave them, and make free will unfree. And the desires that enslave us are always changing; Victor closes his meditation by quoting from Percy Shelley’s poem “Mutability,” which repeats the ancient apothegm that nothing is permanent but change.
Science
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Elizabeth Denlinger: Natural philosophy is roughly equivalent to “science” as we now use the term. Chemistry—which in its most comprehensive sense embodies a great deal of all scientific knowledge—is the most important  discipline in Frankenstein. To the extent that Mary ascribes any method to the creature’s making, it is chemistry. But we should remember that chemistry and alchemy were originally synonyms, and Victor, though he throws off his old love, does not throw it very far: when he describes his discovery of a way of reanimating dead tissue, he does so purely by analogy to a great light breaking on his mind.  He may claim enlightenment but has not yet escaped the thrall of magical thinking.
Science
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Lawrence Dritsas: In the eyes of the public, sensational stories of exploration, filled with tales of near-death faced nobly, mattered far more than somber reports of scientific discovery. A good example of this is the legacy of William Spiers Bruce’s Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902–04). Bruce’s expertly planned and nearly flawless expedition to the Weddell Sea produced a wealth of data, but no drama. Meanwhile, Scott’s fatal expedition to the South Pole (1910–12) and Shackleton’s story of survival and rescue, but little science or success, in 1916, enthralled the public and remain well-known. This is not a recent phenomenon; the value of adventure over actual success was already a fact in the eighteenth century and earlier. Explorers wanted to be remembered for their bravery. For more on the drama of exploration, and explorers as celebrities, see Beau Riffenburgh’s book The Myth of the Explorer: The Press, Sensationalism, and Geographic Discovery.
Influences & AdaptationsPhilosophy & Politics
LD
Lawrence Dritsas: Mutinies are among the worst things that can happen on board a ship. The lawful authority of the captain is overthrown. The only way this might be considered legal and not result in the execution of the mutineers is if the captain was breaking the law or placing the lives of the crew in unreasonable danger. Here, the crew approaches Walton because they want to avoid a situation where they might mutiny and get Walton’s assurance that they will turn south if they ever get the chance. The most famous story of mutiny circulating at the time Mary was writing was certainly that of the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. That event saw Fletcher Christian lead part of the crew to mutiny against its captain, William Bligh, in the South Pacific. In 1792, eleven of the mutineers were captured in Tahiti and three of them were eventually hanged in Portsmouth, England. Meanwhile, Fletcher Christian and a band of mutineers, Tahitian wives, and male servants had escaped to the remote Pitcairn Island, where they were not rediscovered until 1810, when this fantastic story was reignited in the public’s imagination. As a result, we can be confident that Mary, and her readers, would have taken any suggestion of mutiny very seriously indeed.
ScienceTechnology
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Lawrence Dritsas: Exploring ships since the eighteenth century are best viewed as scientific instruments in their own right, similar to the Voyager or Cassini spacecraft today. Ships are a platform for a wide variety of scientific activities, but the science must be done properly. The validity and accuracy of ships’ logs and observations is warranted and sustained by disciplined record-taking and the use of supposedly “objective” instruments of measurement. Telescopes, chronometers, and other instruments gave travel accounts a semblance of credibility that simple narrative prose did not enjoy. Walton’s expedition is further verified as an example of scientific travel through its use of telescopes. (For more information, see Richard Sorrenson’s essay “The ship as a scientific instrument in the eighteenth century.”) Further, the use of telescopes is a great narrative device here, allowing Walton and other members of the crew to observe the creature directly, without threatening him and without endangering themselves. Before we even meet Victor, the creature is an established fact in the story, even though no character has interacted with him. This gives Victor’s revelation of his story especial interest, as we already know the creature has great strength and endurance.
Science
LD
Lawrence Dritsas: Mary publishes this fictional account of Arctic exploration in the same year (1818) that saw a British attempt to reach the North Pole and traverse the Northwest Passage that was unsuccessful, but nonetheless rekindled interest in the Arctic (for more on 1818 as a watershed year in Arctic exploration, see Adriana Craciun’s book Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration). In this passage, Walton equates his search for a route to lands near the North Pole with the search for the Northwest Passage, and reveals his inspiration from reading travel accounts, a favorite pastime of Enlightenment scholars. Given her rich education directed by a free-thinking father, William Godwin, Mary was certainly aware of the voyages of James Cook and George Vancouver to the North Pacific in the 1770s and 1780s, and the many reports of whalers in the North Atlantic (whom she has Walton join in his youth). Ice appeared to block any passage to the far North, but hopes remained in the early nineteenth century that a route may yet exist through the uncharted region, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific more directly. Mary might be recalling her own freedom to read about exploration in a well-stocked domestic library when Walton writes, “My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading.”
Health & MedicinePhilosophy & Politics
HR
Heather Ross: Memory for stressful events can be fallible, with profound implications for justice. Our perception is subjective, and memory is not always reliable, especially with regard to specific details. It is well known that stressful events can impact memory and that our recollections shift over time. Psychologists have studied the accuracy of recall with regard to specific details of an event in both staged and real conditions, in and out of the laboratory. In one case, naïve eyewitnesses experienced a wallet theft in a public outdoor setting. On questioning, recall differed markedly between eyewitnesses on key details including color and size of the wallet, physical appearance of the suspect, and course of events. This phenomenon has serious consequences for our justice system, which often depends on witness recall to provide key evidence in a trial, including identifying suspects during a criminal investigation. It is well-documented that witness recall is often flawed, resulting in faulty suspect identification. Despite these shortcomings, eyewitness testimony based on memory recall is still admitted as evidence in the court system, and has resulted in multiple wrongful convictions leading to life sentences, or even the death penalty in some cases. Time and again, people convicted of felonies have been exonerated based on concrete DNA evidence that is finally tested after they have served years, or even decades, in prison as an innocent person.
Equity & InclusionHealth & MedicineMotivations & Sentiments
JL
Julie Lekstrom Himes: Victor posits that greatness is there for the taking, as long as one eludes the restraints of cowardice or carelessness. As readers, we’re left nearly breathless at the scale of his ambition. His character is defined by a combination of grandiosity, brilliance, and romanticism—a common blend for literary protagonists bedeviled by hubris. In Victor’s mind, his cause is great and just, and any requirement for review and endorsement by his peers or the public, or even for the acquiescence of the creature, is superfluous. In 1966, the Harvard anesthesiologist Henry Beecher published a special article on ethics and clinical research in the New England Journal of Medicine. In a near-direct rebuttal to Victor, Dr. Beecher quotes Pope Pius XII in saying, “science is not the highest value to which all other orders of values … should be subjugated.” Beecher describes 22 examples of unethical human research, which in several cases resulted in significant harm or death to their subjects. The physicians leading these studies were the products of premier medical schools, university hospitals, government military departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as the National Institutes of Health and the hospitals of the Veterans Administration (now called the Department of Veterans Affairs). Beecher reported that he’d easily collected 50 examples, but provided only 22 due to space constraints in the journal. Of the 22 studies in his article, three involved researchers withholding antibiotics of well-established benefit and offering placebos in their stead. Two studies were conducted merely to confirm and restate that certain therapies that had already been proved toxic were indeed harmful. One of these used adolescents as young as 13 who were inmates of a children’s detention facility. Numerous studies were conducted on anesthetized patients (both adult and children) to test well-established principles of pulmonary and cardiovascular physiology using invasive procedures utterly unrelated and unnecessary to the patients’ conditions. Nearly all were performed without the patient’s knowledge or agreement. Beecher postulates what we may consider a thin excuse: that these are the consequences of the terrific pressures placed upon young physician-scientists who desire those few and coveted tenured faculty positions. Perhaps we must leave the final analysis to the novelists, who with the tools of fiction can fully unearth the complexities of human nature and reveal well-intentioned individuals as monsters, and monsters as people.
Science
LD
Lawrence Dritsas: Here Mary has Walton join an ancient discussion about the mythical land of the far North, possibly inhabited by fantastic Hyberboreans. Since antiquity the far North has been a space to imagine difference, possibility, and horror. Tales of endless days and nights followed the amber trade from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, sparking speculations into what life would be like under the North Star. Mary uses Walton’s fantasies about the far North, at odds with reasoned conclusions, to examine the passions that may lead a person to explore beyond the borders of humanity, and possibly human decency, in the name of science.
Equity & InclusionHealth & MedicineScienceTechnology
SR
Samuel Redman: Victor's fascination with the grisly mechanics of dead human bodies has been shared by many people, scientists and otherwise, for centuries. Cabinets of curiosities displayed in the homes of European nobility in the sixteenth century frequently included human skulls. Early medical museums were primarily focused on training medical students through hands-on experience. Almost reluctantly, they began opening their doors to the public, and were surprised by the large number of visitors curiously entering their galleries.Consequently, collections aimed more squarely at the general public flourished. The Army Medical Museum exhibited human remains between 1887 and the 1960s (living on as the National Museum of Health and Medicine). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History built its own large body collections, especially during the early twentieth century. Popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History exhibited human remains in New York City just steps from Central Park. Notable exhibits featuring human remains or innovative reproductions were also popular at World’s Fairs, including Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915), among many others. People crowded galleries even as these exhibits proved vexing to critics. In the quest to rapidly build collections, remains were sometimes collected under highly questionable ethical circumstances. Bodies were removed from graves and sold, gathered from hospitals near exhibitions reminiscent of human zoos, and rounded up haphazardly from battlefields. In the U.S., the human body in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was racialized in almost every respect imaginable. Many people became obsessed with fictitious biological differences between Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans—occasionally stretching claims into rigid hierarchies of humankind. The exhibitions dehumanized bodies by casting them as observable data points rather than actual human beings.By middle of the twentieth century, the racialized science that had led to collecting thousands of skulls and other bones from people around the world had come under increased scrutiny. The comparative study of race, which dominated early displays of human remains, was discredited. Indigenous activists, tired of seeing their ancestors viewed as “specimens,” also began pushing back against their display. Some exhibit planners began seeking other methods—including more sophisticated models—and exhibiting actual human remains became less prominent.Nonetheless, our tendency to turn dead bodies into objects for specimens for consumption—rather than complex human beings with emotions and relationships—remains with us. Spectacularly popular exhibits like Body Worlds, created by Dr. Angelina Whalley and Dr. Gunther von Hagens, continue to draw millions of visitors to gaze upon human corpses frozen in place, rigidly posed through a process called “plastination.”To learn more about Body Worlds and human bodies as public exhibits, read this full article published in The Conversation in 2016, or check out the book Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (2016).
Technology
RO
Robert Oppenheimer: Victor’s pursuit of the creature across the desolate northern ice symbolizes the symbiosis between innovators and innovations. The creature would not exist without its creator, who discovers he can no longer exist without the creature (after all, Victor would die without the food the creature is leaving for him). How many times has a new technology been celebrated before unintended consequences become apparent, when people have become reliant on the technology they must change? For example, how can humanity end its dependence on fossil fuels when two percent of global emissions come from the Haber process, pulling nitrogen from the air to feed the world’s growing population through synthetic fertilizer? How can we bite the hand that feeds us? We chase ourselves to the ends of the Earth, finding at every step that the solutions to our old problems have their own new problems, ad infinitum. Perhaps this is the nature of biological evolution itself—through natural selection, our genomes have become riddled with hacks upon hacks as nature made changes, then adapted to the consequences of those changes on our bodies and environments, necessitating endless innovation.
Health & MedicinePhilosophy & PoliticsScienceTechnology
RO
Robert Oppenheimer: Why is biotechnology sometimes more controversial than other expressions of human creativity? In addition to material concerns about safety faced by any new technology (toxicity, flammability, radioactivity, etc.), biotechnologies attract additional argument about being “natural” or “unnatural.”  The reason for this is apparent in this passage when the creator and creature first converse, revealing they are at cross-purposes. It appears all living things have their own purposes. Any species capable of Darwinian evolution will undergo selection for behavior that is rationally consistent with values prioritizing its own survival and reproduction. All species behave as if they “want” to survive and reproduce, for if they don’t then they rapidly become extinct. In this sense almost any biotechnology (say, producing medicines, biofuels or biomaterials) can be perceived as a kind of slavery. Organisms are used for human purposes rather than being free to pursue their own ends, whatever that means. This is the fear of biotechnology—what happens when the slave rebels? What if they are twisted by slavery into a monster that turns against us?
Health & MedicineScience
RO
Robert Oppenheimer: Mary frames Victor’s discovery in terms of vitalism, the idea that inanimate and animate matter are different. This difference is the “principle” and “secret cause” separating life and death that Victor discovers and controls. Over the past 200 years, vitalism has become unpopular. A long tradition of experiments has demonstrated that animate matter can be chemically synthesized and retain its biological activity (for example, Friedrich Wöhler’s 1828 synthesis of urea or J. Craig Venter’s 2010 synthesis of genomes). This implies that Victor’s “principle of life” must preexist in all matter or not exist at all, with the latter being a simpler explanation. If biology is “just” complex chemistry, as current scientific consensus suggests, then it is not clear that a single cause of life awaits discovery. Instead there seems to be a spectrum between living and non-living systems. Chemical systems might emulate various processes associated with life—replication, metabolism, evolution, development, adaptation, and so on—though it is unclear which of these defines life. Over the next century, each of these might be explored independently in living and non-living systems spanning natural and artificial chemistries. While the knowledge that animate and inanimate matter are ultimately the same might have restrained Victor’s “supernatural enthusiasm,” it surely would have delighted his romantic side to see a scientific basis for the unity of living and non-living things.
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
RO
Robert Oppenheimer: Do students experience the enticements of science? For decades, participation in STEM subjects has decreased in Australian high schools. Perhaps, Mary might suggest, this has something to do with students’ experience of science in classes and assessments. Rote-learning information to regurgitate in examinations is less representative of the scientific pursuit than autodidactic learning-by-doing—scientists don’t do exams, they do experiments. Science is a practical way of learning about the world, rather than the abstract knowledge repeated during lectures or examinations. It is unsurprising that when our educational model reflects the active and ongoing scientific process, it improves performance and participation in science. For more on how an active approach improves science learning, see Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew, and Carl Wieman, 2011 and Scott Freeman et al., 2014.
Influences & AdaptationsScience
RO
Robert Oppenheimer: 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.
Science
RO
Robert Oppenheimer: “Keeping” in this passage means perspective. Realistic pictures keep the proper relation of near and distant objects, and of important and unimportant features. For a contemporary source on “keeping” and painting, see William Gilpin’s An essay upon prints (1792).
Health & MedicineScienceTechnology
ER
Emily Redman: In much of the novel, Mary works to separate Victor from alchemical traditions, stressing his supposed objectivity and reliance on repeatable experimental methods. This quote from Professor Waldman, who instructs Victor at the University of Ingolstadt—a careful choice by Mary, as this institution was popularly known as a center for science—situates her protagonist as wholly knowledgeable (and respectful) of contemporary science. Opening with a disavowal of alchemical aims, Waldman celebrates the “new science” priority on the ordinary environment, invoking the work of geologists who literally “dabble in dirt” and the prominent work of physiologists at the time who dirtied their hands with the human body. This passage alludes to the French anatomist Marie François Xavier Bichat, in both his work in histology and his influence on the concept of vitalism, and to the Italian physician Marcello Malpighi, whose “dabbling in the dirt” of vivisection and dissection, as well as his “poring over the microscope,” led to discoveries that contributed to philosophical discussions about reproduction. Both are surely examples of contemporary scientists penetrating of the recesses of nature in its hiding places. 1783 saw the start of a spectacular promise of ascending the heavens, with widely reported balloon flights originating in Paris. Advances in microscopy enabled improvements upon the English physician William Harvey’s theory of the circulatory system, while the air-pump, which Victor greatly admires, increased our understanding of air and gases. Waldman’s final sentence refers to industrial technology’s success in the development of gunpowder—commanding the thunders of heaven and mimicking an earthquake—and the popular showmanship of “magic lantern” technology that projected images of phantoms using optics. The technological spectacle of the magic lantern epitomizes the grey area between the rationalist triumphs of Enlightenment science and the Romantic philosophy of wonder and scientific disillusionment, which serves as a constant tension throughout Shelley’s novel.
Equity & InclusionMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
Joey Eschrich: Mary’s religious beliefs are difficult to pin down precisely, but she seems to have lived a relatively secular, non-religious life. However, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was a noted atheist who wrote the incendiary pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism” and distributed it anonymously in 1811. Percy refused to deny authorship of the pamphlet and was consequently expelled from Oxford University.
Influences & Adaptations
Joey Eschrich: The names Ariosto and Angelica in this paragraph are references to Orlando Furioso, an Italian epic poem published in the early sixteenth century. Ludovico Ariosto is the author of the poem, and Angelica is a beautiful princess who loves, leaves, and drives insane Orlando, a paladin serving the French king and Roman Emperor Charlemagne. The poem blends chivalric romance, history, and mythology, and includes a trip to the Moon and a hippogriff, a legendary eagle-horse hybrid that is featured memorably in the Harry Potter series. Learn more and see page images from an early seventeenth-century English translation at the British Library, and read a full, later English translation for free at Project Gutenberg.
Equity & InclusionInfluences & AdaptationsPhilosophy & Politics
Joey Eschrich: The Vicar of Wakefield is a novel by the Irish author Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774), published in 1766. It paints an often-idealizing but also tumultuous picture of rural English life, and can be interpreted both as a sentimental paean to human goodness and as a satire. This quote from the Dutch schoolmaster, and the anti-intellectualism espoused by Henry Clerval’s father, is in opposition with Mary’s own beliefs about education. Her mother and idol, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), was a tireless advocate for the education of young women, and argued in books including Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that education was essential for the happiness, productivity, and virtuousness of men and women alike.
Influences & Adaptations
Joey Eschrich: The 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein by director James Whale is perhaps the most indelible and iconic image of the creature and his creator. The film’s centerpiece is the “It’s alive” scene, where Victor brings his inert creation to life in a technologically intimidating electrical laboratory, complete with giant orbs, serpentine coils, and many other inscrutable scientific instruments. Colin Clive, the actor who plays Victor, delivers an irresistibly manic performance, squirming and writhing in his white lab coat and exclaiming, “It’s alive, it’s alive … In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” Whale’s film exemplifies a popular interpretation of the novel as a warning against scientific hubris. Everything about the “It’s alive” scene, from the bombastic scientific set dressing and Clive’s performance to the ritualistic pacing, which amplifies the tension of the moment of creation, emphasizes that this is a moment of catastrophic overreach. Whale also has several people witness the experiment, and uses their horrified reactions as a signal to the audience, suggesting the correct response to this spectacle. In this passage, Mary certainly ladles on the terror, setting the creation during “a dreary night” and putting Victor in a state of “anxiety that almost amounted to agony.” The sentence that narrates the creature’s awakening, with its pattering rain and low-burning candle, and the creature’s “dull yellow eye” and juddering first movements, is among the most finely wrought and memorable in the novel. But her decision to omit the nitty-gritty details about the techniques and instruments that Victor used to animate the creature make the scene much less pointed in terms of the scientific-hubris interpretation that has become dominant in popular culture adaptations.
Influences & AdaptationsMary Shelley
Joey Eschrich: The collection of ghost stories that Mary Shelley and her compatriots read during the rainy, inclement summer of 1816 is Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German stories published in 1812. Learn more about the book and see page images at the British Library, and read an English translation, published in 1820 as Tales of the Dead, at the Internet Archive.
Influences & AdaptationsPhilosophy & PoliticsScience
Joey Eschrich: In a 1994 essay for the journal Natural History, famed paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002) argues that Hollywood adaptations wrongly depict the creature as innately evil—in the iconic Universal monster movies, born evil, implanted with a criminal’s brain. According to Gould, the creature has kind, benevolent tendencies, and becomes violent because he is repeatedly rejected and scorned because he is enormous, and terrifyingly ugly. This doesn’t exonerate Victor, however. Gould explains that Victor had a responsibility to create the conditions for the creature’s acceptance into society:“Frankenstein's monster was a good man in an appallingly ugly body. His countrymen could have been educated to accept him, but the person responsible for that instruction—his creator, Victor Frankenstein—ran away from his foremost duty, and abandoned his creation at first sight. Victor's sin does not lie in misuse of technology or hubris in emulating God; we cannot find these themes in Mary Shelley’s account. Victor failed because he followed a predisposition of human nature—visceral disgust at the monster's appearance—and did not undertake the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptance.”
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
WK
William K. Storey: The crew, near mutiny, implores Captain Walton to turn back at the earliest opportunity. This is an example of a crew seizing the initiative, an unusual and dangerous gambit that indicates their desperation. Victor intercedes in the shipboard drama, chiding the crew back into submission. Readers of the early nineteenth century would have understood Victor’s intervention in the context of the famous mutiny against Captain William Bligh (1754–1817), who had been on a scientific mission himself while on board H.M.S. Bounty. The crew cast Bligh adrift, but much to everyone’s surprise, the captain survived an epic, transoceanic voyage in a small craft and testified against the mutineers in court (Dening, 1992). Readers would have also remembered the earlier voyages of explorers such as Captain James Cook (1728–1779), who pushed his crews repeatedly to find the Southern Continent, only to be disappointed after arduous efforts. Readers mostly regarded Cook’s voyages to the Antarctic, and the Arctic voyages of Vitus Bering (1681–1741) and others, as supremely heroic (Hough, 1994; Day, 2013). Readers today must remember that while Victor’s creation of life resonates strongly in the twenty-first century, nineteenth-century readers would have regarded the sciences of exploration, including physical geography and bio-prospecting, with equal awe. Victor urges the crew to keep pushing, not out of a ship’s captain’s authority, but out of the pure authority of science. Ironically, he is the one whose quest for knowledge has put him in a deadly predicament, yet in the context of this meeting, he must remain optimistic. If he dies, the crew must return the ship home so that Walton can tell the story. Victor’s intervention reduces concerns about the completion of the voyage, positing a glorious ending while eliding the sense of incompleteness that comes with much discovery. A discovery’s results, or its completeness in the scientific sense, is often not immediately apparent to the discoverers (Robinson, 2016). The contest over the voyage’s incompleteness is amplified by the book’s ending, in which the creature leaves the ship, promising to kill himself. Readers are left to wonder whether he has really met his end.
Health & MedicineScience
VS
Verena Schulze Greiving: Health is a particular obsession of the novel, and Mary makes numerous references to the work of alchemists, who among other things were searching for an elixir to prolong human life. In the early stages of the novel, Victor’s health quickly declines because of his isolation and his exhausting efforts to create new life. He postpones the restoration of his health via exercise and amusement until after he has completed his creation, but his physical and mental well-being only worsen once the creature is alive. Today, the relationship between a healthy lifestyle and longevity is still a much-studied topic. Scientists have discovered geographic areas around the world, so-called “Blue Zones,” where people tend to live much longer—including Sardinia (Italy), the islands of Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (United States), Nicoya (Costa Rica), and Icaria (Greece). This high longevity is associated with a number of factors the inhabitants of the Blue Zones have in common, such as a healthy diet, regular natural physical activity, choosing a life partner and putting their family first, and being part of social circles that stimulate healthy living. Some scientists use these factors as guidelines for a healthy lifestyle and a longer lifespan—a modern elixir of life, so to speak.
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
SW
Steven Weiner: The language Waldman uses when advising young Victor provides a snapshot of the changing views of scientific knowledge in the early nineteenth century, while also speaking to its overall cultural ascendancy during this period. The term “natural philosophy” conjures up an ancient vision of science grounded in Aristotle, but also calls to mind Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), one of the seminal works that heralded the European Enlightenment. Waldman’s suggestion that Victor should broaden his intellectual horizons is telling in that he refers explicitly to other realms of scientific inquiry, but does not mention philosophy, literature, or history as “department[s] of human knowledge.” These omissions can be read as a critique of the short-sightedness of some modern scientists, who see no need to consider the broader consequences of their creations and discoveries. If Victor’s educators had compelled him to confront the moral and ethical dimensions of his pursuits, perhaps he could have avoided the tragedies to come.
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
SK
Stacey Kuznetsov: This passage speaks to the idea that scientific inquiry has no limits: there is always more to learn, and this learning is not confined to professional laboratories or limited to people with specific academic degrees. Over the past few decades, breakthroughs in DIY (do-it-yourself) methods, low-cost technologies, and social media platforms have given rise to many citizen science communities. These groups are engaging in science practice in new and often unexpected ways. Some people are collecting and analyzing environmental data with low-cost sensors, while others are experimenting with biology in art studios, garages, and hackspaces. We can understand these initiatives as publics—groups of people who come together around shared concerns and work towards changing the status quo. Their concerns revolve around some of the greatest challenges of our lives: healthcare, environmental pollution, food production, climate change, or the mechanisms by which professional science operates. Citizen science efforts affect these issues, whether by democratizing science participation, influencing health and environmental policy, shifting public opinion, or shaping the questions asked by professional research. To learn more about citizen science and get involved, a great place to start is Arizona State University’s SANDS (Social and Digital Systems) group.
Influences & AdaptationsMotivations & SentimentsPhilosophy & Politics
SM
Sean McCafferty: This passage foreshadows the path of Victor’s obsession with bringing his creature to life. Since his early education was focused more on the “end placed in view” rather than the secondary effects of that end, he failed to fully consider the repercussions of creating and unleashing his creature upon the world. The fact that Victor wasn’t driven “by emulation” is also telling, since he diverges so far from societal norms in his research and his conception of right and wrong in his pursuit of creating life. These are common themes not only in Pygmalion stories about giving life to inanimate matter (like Frankenstein), but also science fiction in general. Accordingly, many professionals in the field of science and technology studies are focusing on the human and social aspects of scientific and technological change, in an effort to avoid these pitfalls.
ScienceTechnology
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Samuel Arbesman: Victor recognizes that he is working with what is generally referred to as a complex system. In complexity science, a complex system is one that consists of a large number of interacting parts, often of diverse types, resulting in such hallmarks as nonlinear and emergent behavior. For example, the interactions of cars on a highway—a complex system—can lead to unexpected and emergent traffic jams, which sometimes seem like they arise out of nowhere. But often, massive complex systems—other examples include living organisms, from single cells to elephants—are constructed in ways that make them difficult for our limited human brains to think about. So without a clear understanding of how everything connects and operates in concert within a complex system, a small change might lead to massive unanticipated consequences (foreshadowing!). Victor is suffering from the all-too-common hubris of trying to understand a complex system—in this case, the creature itself—by approaching it like an engineered object like car or a laptop, even though complex living systems are orders of magnitude more complex than most traditional engineered technologies. Victor should have followed his inclination towards first trying to construct a simpler system, which might have been easier to understand.
Influences & AdaptationsPhilosophy & PoliticsScience
RB
Ron Broglio: Nature serves as a healer of body and mind. This belief was developed during the Romantic period, most notably by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and through the poetry of William Wordsworth. While philosopher Thomas Hobbes argues that humans are refined and cultured through society, Rousseau proposes that culture corrupts us and draws us away from the purity of our natural state; time spent in nature restores a primitive innocence (or what Hobbes thought of as a primitive crudeness). Mary is drawing from William Wordsworth’s short poems “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned,” which are clear delineations of Victor’s experience in nature. Regarding “fellow-creatures” and “feelings of my heart,” the term “fellow feeling” was made popular by Adam Smith, who in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), argues that humans have a natural sympathetic union with others and that this affective nature can be cultivated and is the basis of moral action. Finally, Victor’s attempt to create a science in isolation, “secluded from intercourse of my fellow-creatures,” goes against the notion of science as a community advancing learning through dialogue. For an excellent study on science as a community, see Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1986).
Philosophy & PoliticsScience
RC
Richard C. Sha: The power of the Romantic imagination lay in its ability to generate ideas and productive analogies, figures of comparison—but not all of its ideas and analogies could be valuable. Even worse, this generation of ideas was so quick that it was widely recognized to be outside the purview of conscious awareness: hence the insistent connection of imagination and dreams in the Romantic period. Such velocity was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, spontaneity could lead to out-of-the-box thinking. On the other hand, to mint spontaneity as knowledge risked madness; out-of-the-boxness is not in itself a virtue. This meant that it was imperative that ideas of imagination be evaluated, which in turn, required the cooperation of imagination and reason. When intuition is counted as evidence, there can be no such cooperation.  And because we don’t refer to useless ideas as “creative,” the imagination’s creativity had to earn its keep.So, this passage from the novel is rife with irony. While Mary recognizes the powerful spontaneousness of the imagination’s workings—she stresses the velocity by which the crossing of the idea in Victor’s imagination leads to conviction—the consequences of conflating the mere presence of an idea with proof would be devastating, and not just to science. Science, moreover, would have no way of distinguishing itself from fantasy. The famed English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon worried about idols of the mind, but this would be idolatry of the mind. The fault here lies not with Romantic science (which helped to launch the study of biology by arguing that life was separate from inorganic nature and discovered electromagnetism, infrared light, light as a wave, and Brownian motion), but rather with the undisciplined ways that Victor relies on his imagination. Mary’s swipe at Victor’s undeveloped imagination occurs most forcefully in the phrase “irresistible proof,” her point being that this chain of imaginative circumstantial evidence is irresistible only to Victor. Ideas cannot categorically be proof; if that were the case, castles in the air would be real. With all that said, Victor’s intuition is actually correct in this instance. But Mary’s larger argument is that without a way of deliberating upon intuition, only chaos can result.
Health & MedicineMotivations & Sentiments
PN
Peter Nagy: The melancholy and gloomy mood Victor describes here can be easily interpreted as signs of depression. The cognitive psychologist Aaron Beck argues that people who are depressed think and feel differently when compared to people who are not. In addition to adopting a pessimistic and negative world view, they may also develop a faulty and irrational thinking style. As a result, they misinterpret facts and blame themselves for the bad things happening to them or other people. According to Beck, depressed people are dominated by three dysfunctional beliefs also known as the cognitive triad. First, they tend to think that they are inferior to others and there is something wrong with them. Second, they think that no matter what they do, they cannot succeed in any tasks. And finally, they view their future as hopeless and grim. Applying Beck’s theory to Frankenstein, we can argue that Victor suffers from all three of these dysfunctional patterns of thought. For instance, he thinks that he is defective because he unleashed a monster into the world and caused a lot of pain to others. Victor also thinks that his efforts are futile because he cannot undo and set right his past mistakes. As a result, he imagines his future pessimistically, and holds out no hope to be happy again.
Health & MedicineMotivations & Sentiments
PN
Peter Nagy: As a perverse sort of new father, Victor here shows the symptoms of postpartum depression: the emotional struggles and the feeling of hopelessness experienced by some women after the birth of a child. A recent article by the psychologist Darby Saxbe suggests that 1 in 10 men also suffers from depression after the birth of a child, as a result of reduced levels of testosterone in their body. As an androgen hormone, testosterone is associated with the development and maintenance of secondary sex characteristics, such as muscles or body hair among males. What researchers found is some men experience sudden drop of testosterone level, which can lead to various depression symptoms. These results may explain why Victor feels so hopeless and emotionally depleted. After “giving birth” to his creation, Victor finds himself ill and weak, constantly wondering about the fate of his “child.” Because he is depressed, Victor cannot bond with and take care of the creature. Like other people suffering from postpartum depression, Victor feels isolated and exhausted, and cannot experience joy or pleasure.
Health & MedicineMotivations & Sentiments
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Peter Nagy: Victor, as the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882–1960) would say, engages in manic defense here. People use manic defense to cope with negative feelings like guilt, shame, or embarrassment by altering or denying reality. Manic defense helps distract them from their problems. Victor cannot face the consequences of his experimentation, and engages in odd behaviors, such as jumping over chairs or clapping. Instead of admitting his emotional turmoil and taking responsibility for the creature, he engages in manic defense to avoid feeling guilty or ashamed. As a result, he does not feel free to confess his project to anyone else, even his dearest friend Clerval. In this passage, Victor engages in manic defense to prevent facing his confusion and despair by entering into a state of euphoria and hysteria. He even bursts into what Klein would call “manic laughter” to further distract himself from his anxieties. His distraction and inaction, however, leads to the death of several people, including his beloved Elizabeth. So, by overusing manic defense, Victor loses his connection to reality and cannot cope with his problems in a constructive way, which ultimately causes a lot of suffering to the people around him.
Health & Medicine
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Patrick McGurrin: The body is constantly perceiving sensory information in the environment, and it is up to the brain to make sense of this information. Different parts of the brain help to process different pieces of information: the olfactory bulb for smell, the occipital lobe for visual information, and the temporal lobe for hearing. Other parts of the brain, including the primary sensory cortex, then combine these discrete sensory components to create a full picture of what’s happening. During infancy, these sensory modalities actually develop at different times, and slowly over the course of the first year develop individually, and subsequently begin to communicate with one another. While all of this sensory information is available to the nervous system, the brain carefully calculates what is most important in each moment, and selectively ignores other information that may be distracting or unhelpful. These tools are even built into the anatomy of the sensory systems. For example, the human eye has a small region in the very center, called the fovea, that contains the largest number of receptors to take in visual information. This region, while small, allows us to see with great acuity a region the size of a thumb, with everything else around it a bit blurry. This lets the eyes focus on the most important part of the visual field, and to move around to refocus on a moving item or to see the details of a larger space.
Health & MedicineScience
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Patrick McGurrin: The brain is composed of three layers, each associated with a different degree of cognitive complexity. The mesencephalon is the oldest brain structure, and is found even in the most basic vertebrates. It is responsible for simple functions, such as the processing of sensory information that allows an organism to respond to environmental stimuli, and it monitors processes like sleep and breathing. As the evolutionary process continued, the diencephalon developed, allowing more advanced processing of this information. The addition of regions of the brain such as the thalamus and hypothalamus introduced basic emotions such as fear responses, like we see in rats and dogs. Humans then developed a telencephalon, which is better known as the cerebral cortex. This region sits atop the mesencephalon and diencephalon, and provides humans with abilities such as critical and abstract thinking, as well as improved spatial processing. These abilities are unique to humans; they are what differentiate us from our closest evolutionary ancestor, the chimpanzee. In many ways, the telencephalon is what sets us free and apart from what Victor calls “the brute,” but it also creates other cognitive challenges (like depression and other complex, sometimes turbulent emotional states) as we experience the world in a uniquely human way.
Equity & InclusionPhilosophy & PoliticsScienceTechnology
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Patrick McGurrin: When human or animal studies occur at a research institution (for example, at a university or a hospital), they require proper authorization by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), respectively. These organizations monitor research that requires the participation of living things, to ensure that the work is of proper merit and that it abides by established ethical guidelines. It doesn’t appear that Victor had to abide by such regulations when he studied and experimented to create the monster. Victor’s unregulated research raises the question of whether such guidelines should be in place when creating and conducting experiments on artificial intelligences. As we begin to design and test more sophisticated AI systems, scientists will need to ask whether these beings are sentient, and whether research with them requires oversight by mechanisms like those used to oversee research with humans and animals. The creation of AI so far has largely been a quest to determine whether it is technically feasible to create a device capable of mimicking complex human cognition. But once we achieve that goal, we will have to begin answering questions about how and for what reasons we can study these beings. Perhaps we’ll also have to begin considering how and why AIs may study humans!
Philosophy & PoliticsTechnology
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Patrick McGurrin: Victor immediately assumes that the murderer can only be his creation, despite the change in location and the length of time since he last saw the creature. But in reality, Victor didn’t create a murderer. Rather, he brought something (an assemblage of human body parts from different corpses) back to life, with no certainty as to what it may be capable of. He aimed to reanimate life because of his fascination with anatomy and physiology, not to create a monster. This deeply rooted fear or assumption that technology will do harm resembles one we often see today, especially as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more sophisticated. While in theory these new devices are designed only to perform an intended purpose, a sentiment of fear exists that they will quickly move to harm their human creators. This fear is interesting, as it is scientists who quite literally imbue their creations with purpose through the writing and organization of the AI’s code. These human-crafted scripts are used to bring the AI to life, and to define how it will learn and grow. It is ultimately what shapes the AI’s body of knowledge and subsequent decision-making. Thus, this fear of an AI’s potential for harm links back to a fear of human action or intent—a mistrust of the aptitude and motivations of human creators.
Health & MedicineScienceTechnology
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Patrick McGurrin: Scientists often become lost in the pursuit of bringing an idea to life. This desire to create something that exists purely at the theoretical level and bring it to fruition can become the only focus, leading scientists to ignore other practical or societal implications. From a psychological perspective, this is reminiscent of a condition called inattentional or perceptual blindness, wherein a person is unable to see something that is clearly visible to them. This perceptual inability to see something in the visual field is due to an intense focus on a specific task or goal. An example of this is a recent experiment where scientists asked radiologists to review an x-ray for abnormalities. The doctors consistently failed to report a gorilla image placed in the background of the x-ray. Hyper-focus on a task can cause a person to completely miss something right in front of them, leading to unexpected or unwanted outcomes. Victor’s maddening pursuit of miraculous physiological restoration leaves him blind, so to speak, to the other consequences of bringing a human form back to life. It is not until the task is complete and he sees the outcome that the blindness fades and the true consequences come to light. Issues like this are the impetus for the formation of fields of study like responsible innovation, which aims to prepare us for a wide variety of potential outcomes of technological change.
Equity & InclusionPhilosophy & PoliticsTechnology
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Patrick McGurrin: The creation of life brings with it the challenge of defining that creation, and perhaps more importantly, defining the essence of life itself. To use human parts to reanimate a human in the same form, but to consider it a new species, is reminiscent of current research that aims to design technology that can mimic the human form, and/or human cognitive and social abilities. Artificial neural networks and prosthetic limbs, chatbots and full-on robotic entities, each come with some form of sentience. As the first robot was just granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, questions about what makes something alive, or human, or self-aware, are becoming increasingly relevant. Should an entity be considered human when it moves and talks in a convincingly human way, with appropriate emotional tone, as required to pass the Turing test? Or more interestingly, perhaps humans, who define these labels, will determine that no technological mimic, regardless of accuracy or form, should ever be granted human status. These issues will become more complex as human enhancement becomes more widespread and technologically sophisticated. Humans may transition from using conventional cognitive enhancers, like caffeine, to implanted devices that stimulate the brain to augment memory or learning more directly. This addition means that the human brain will come to have both biological and artificial components. Furthermore, altering the human genome may introduce changes that offer various physical or cognitive advantages, but may also blur the line between human and nonhuman.
Health & MedicineScienceTechnology
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Patrick McGurrin: The human body remains a physiological work of art, one biomedical engineers and doctors aim to recreate. But how to do this remains elusive, even as research brings forth novel technological advancements. We understand how the brain communicates with muscles to initiate action or maintain behavior: Electrical signals in the motor cortex of the brain signal the activation of muscles in the arms and legs via pathways in the spinal cord. But more intricate questions about how the brain translates a complex thought into mechanical action, even one as simple as lifting a cup of coffee, remains unknown. This challenge confronts scientists and engineers creating devices designed to interface with the human body, like prosthetic limbs, where algorithms try to translate muscle or brain activity into desired motion. The mid-1900s marked a transition away from thinking of prosthetic limbs as foreign attachments to the body with their own properties, and toward approaching prosthetics as human-machine interfaces that would function flawlessly with their biological counterparts. Scientists are attempting to build on this work, starting with movement capabilities, such as how the ankle stabilizes the foot or the wrist the hand. From there, more detailed questions arise about how to mimic the elastic properties of the muscles, or how to design sensors on the fingertips to work seamlessly with nerves in the residual limb (the part of an arm or leg that is still intact after an injury or amputation) to relay sensations like touch and temperature to the brain. Together, these advances aim to create a device that could perform similarly to, or perhaps even surpass the functionality of, a human limb.
Equity & InclusionHealth & MedicineInfluences & AdaptationsTechnology
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Nora S. Vaage: Victor declares that he does not believe his conduct is “blameable,” despite his previous periods of introspection and remorse. However, when he states that he was bound to assure the creature’s happiness and well-being, but had “greater claims” preventing him from creating a companion for it, he deliberately leaves out his behavior just after he brought the creature to life. As the creature’s account of that initial period of abandonment makes clear to the reader, in this critical stage Victor neglected his responsibility towards his scientific subject: the education, compassion, and companionship that might have led the creature toward a different path. Today, artists working in various media are still exploring the nature of this responsibility, of creators to their creations. In the movie Chappie (2015), a police robot endowed with artificial intelligence is stolen from the factory immediately after its “birth,” and is introduced to the world by a group of gangsters, radically affecting its behavior and moral code. Chappie’s creator, at the mercy of the gangsters, tries to instill Chappie with a moral compass, but he is also lying to the robot about its situation, giving rise to emotional reactions of hurt and betrayal, and to all manner of violent mayhem. In a very different medium, the Tissue Culture and Art Project explores our sense of responsibility towards non-sentient life. In the early 2000s, this Australian artists’ group grew small tissue culture sculptures shaped like dolls or wings—basically lumps of cells without an immune system, which could not live outside of bioreactor systems. By performing “killing rituals” for these sculptures at the end of their exhibition, taking them out of their protected environment and having the audience touch them, effectively contaminating and killing them, the artists created awareness that these small shapes were, in some sense, alive and in need of care.
Technology
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Noa Bruhis: Mary juxtaposes energy (the lightning) and water (the imagery of electricity as a fluid drawn from the clouds) in this passage, and both seem very simple to summon. Today we still rely on both energy and water, and neither are quite so easy to get. We are increasingly creative with how we create, capture, and harness forms of energy, including methods that are extractive (dug up from the Earth, like coal), and methods that are considered sustainable (renewable energies like wind and hydropower). However, even these sustainable methods can have destructive impacts on their surroundings: wind farms disrupt bird habitats and their associated ecosystems, while hydroelectric power often devastates fish runs and plants on riverbanks. Unlike energy, we can’t be creative about generating water, and we absolutely need it for survival. While we may invent innovative methods for obtaining, reclaiming, or desalinating water, the more we pollute it, the more costly it is to get it into a usable or drinkable form. If only we could all make kites and summon fluid from the clouds....
Health & MedicineMotivations & SentimentsScience
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Michelle N. Shiota: Wonder and awe are recurring themes in Frankenstein, and many of Mary’s insights resonate with findings from research on emotion. While panoramic views of nature commonly evoke awe, as depicted here, the novel recognizes that awe is subjective, elicited by anything one perceives as vast and extraordinary (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Victor feels awe upon discovering the scientific principle of life as well as at the summit of Montanvert; the creature feels it when seeing candlelight for the first time, and when reading Paradise Lost. Descriptions of awe as quieting the mind, soothing the body, and interrupting thoughts about the “passing cares of life” all align with experimental psychology research on the subjective, physiological, and cognitive effects of awe (e.g., Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012; Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007; Shiota, Neufeld, Yeung, Moser, & Perea, 2011). Frankenstein also suggests that awe may be inextricably linked to horror. The most terrifying scenes in the novel often follow directly upon the most wondrous: after learning the principle of life comes the horror of seeing the monster’s eyes open; in the midst of exquisite scenes on the glacier Montanvert and at Lake Geneva, the creature appears; the creature is amazed by the account of human origins in Paradise Lost, then appalled by Victor’s notes on his own creation. In Mary’s time these concepts were closely related. “Awe” is derived from the Old English word for terror, and she often uses “awful” in its original sense—awe-inspiring—rather than the modern, negative sense. Throughout Frankenstein, Mary seems to ask whether the human capacity for wonder may be the very thing that causes our downfall.
Equity & InclusionInfluences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
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Lisa Yaszek: In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary’s mother, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, argues that while the outward appearance of men and women can vary greatly, in the modern world what really matters is the mind. Thus, all people regardless of gender should have the opportunity to develop their capacity for reason and virtue and to master their base impulses toward passion and violence. As this passage suggests, the tragedy of the creature is that while he has proven his mental abilities time and time again, Victor and the rest of human society are so repulsed by his looks that he is denied a proper place in society and transformed into a vicious, violent being, lower than the “meanest animal.”
Equity & InclusionInfluences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
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Lisa Yaszek: Here, Mary dramatizes her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas about education, gender, and class as expressed in Wollstonecraft’s pioneering feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In the concluding chapter of Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues that women who are denied proper educations in reason and virtue are often unreasonably harsh with their servants, thereby teaching their children that it is appropriate to be cruel to people of other (usually lower) classes. In contrast, Mary shows how properly educating women of all classes might forge bonds of affection between them and foster peace in the home—a fact that is duly noted by young Victor himself.
Health & MedicineScience
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Lisa Yaszek: In this passage, Mary implicitly contrasts Victor’s attempt to create life with the appropriate modes of natural reproduction championed by poet and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin. Darwin argued in his long poems The Loves of the Plants (1789), The Economy of Vegetation (1791), and The Temple of Nature (1803), as well as in his prose work Zoonomia (1794-96), that paired sexual reproduction, which evolved slowly over time, is evolutionarily more advanced than hermaphroditic reproduction (as in many worm species) or solitary reproduction (as in yeast and many single-celled organisms). By way of contrast, Victor seeks to create life by himself as quickly as possible, using only his mind and whatever technologies are available to him. The disastrous results of this experiment are foreshadowed by Shelley’s description of the creature’s “dull yellow eye” and “convulsive motion,” both of which suggest that Victor’s offspring has been made sickly or brutish by his father/creator’s rash actions.
Equity & InclusionInfluences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
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Lisa Yaszek: Although Mary claims she is writing a new kind of novel without “prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind,” this passage connects Frankenstein with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a pioneering feminist manifesto by Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. In Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues that women’s unrealistic expectations about marriage and motherhood derive in large part from reading romance novels rather than being allowed to acquire formal educations that promote reason and virtue. Here, Mary takes her mother’s argument in new directions by claiming to have written a novel that provides exactly the kind of intellectual and moral education promoted by her mother and other early feminists.
Equity & InclusionInfluences & Adaptations
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Lisa Yaszek: Mary’s wryly affectionate hope that her “hideous progeny” might “go forth and prosper” would be echoed nearly a century and a half later by science fiction author Joanna Russ, who, at the end of her groundbreaking feminist novel The Female Man (1975), pays homage to her literary ancestress with the command: “go, little book, trot through Texas and Vermont and Alaska… bob a curtsey at the shrines of Freidan, Millet, Greer… recite yourself to all who will listen…wash your face and take your place without fuss in the Library of Congress.” Significantly, however, while Mary links her desire for literary success to the memory of a happier past with her husband and friends, Russ looks forward to a happier future when “we will be free” because feminist endeavors—including the creation of feminist science fiction—have paved the way for true equality between the sexes.
Influences & Adaptations
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Kevin Sandler: Mary’s physical description of the creature in this passage found its way into a motley collection of representations for Saturday morning television cartoons in the late 1960s, in the wake of the two-year runs and subsequent syndication success of The Addams Family (ABC, 1964–66) and The Munsters (CBS, 1964–66). Unlike the Universal Television-produced Munsters sitcom—which could use the iconic copyrighted designs from its sister film studio’s classic monster series for its Frankenstein’s creature, the family patriarch Herman—independent television producers had to develop their own depictions of the creature, with widely varying appearance and costume. For example, skin tones ranged from the Caucasian Milton the Monster (ABC, 1965-68) to the robotic blue of Frankenstein Jr. (CBS, 1966–68) to the sickly green of Frankie in The Groovie Goolies (CBS, 1970–71). What these cartoons all had in common, however, was an inability to capture Mary’s rich description of the creature’s features because of the economic and time constraints of producing Saturday morning television. Production companies were beholden to television networks, who demanded large amounts of animation quickly to meet broadcast air dates but paid very little money for animated programming.  The result is a sparseness of detail, which is evident in the episode “A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts” from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (CBS, 1969–71). Scooby-Doo’s animators designed a low-fidelity, graphically simple version of the creature with smooth green skin, a lifeless and static swatch of jet-black hair, and vacant white eyes.  This simplified portrayal of the creature could only superficially represent the monstrous form that so frightens Victor in this passage.
Health & MedicineMary ShelleyScienceTechnology
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Jonathon Keats: When Mary wrote these lines, the fictional Victor Frankenstein was not alone in infusing sparks of being into lifeless things. Ever since the Italian physician Luigi Galvani made frogs’ legs jump with static electricity in the 1780s—and hypothesized that bodies were animated by an “electric fluid” inside the brain—electrically stimulating the dead was practically a mania in Europe. The most notorious experiments were performed by Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who zapped newly executed criminals with primitive batteries, achieving results that were profoundly disturbing. (Following one encounter, Aldini memorably wrote that the cadaver’s “jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.”) Performed in public, the experiments were widely reported, and most certainly inspired Mary’s fiction. Even though Mary’s story was speculative, and remains forward-looking even today, Frankenstein was still very much a product of its era. The dual nature of Frankenstein is also true of Aldini’s experiments. They were premised on a theory that was disproven when electricity was shown not to be a fluid, but they nevertheless provided the experimental basis for electrophysiology, electroencephalography, and brain-machine interfaces. Electricity is an essential mechanism of communication between the brain and body. Monitoring electrical signals continues to provide fundamental biological insights as well as vital medical diagnostics. Yet it’s the brain-machine interface that brings us closest to Victor’s “spark of being.” Motor signals from the brain can now be detected with EEG headsets and used to control lifeless robotics. The operator need not lift a finger. And there’s nothing to stop a future Aldini from swapping the robot for a cadaver. I’ve been exploring these ideas in Mental Work, an art-and-science installation using brain-machine interfaces developed at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a research institute in Switzerland, just around the corner from where Mary originally conceived of the idea for Frankenstein. Human participants use their brainwaves to control aluminum-and-chrome machines inspired by the Industrial Revolution, conjuring the possibility of a Cognitive Revolution: a speculative future in which factories are untouched by human hands but nevertheless guided by human cognition and intention.
Health & MedicinePhilosophy & PoliticsScience
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Eileen Gunn: One of the ideas that Mary explores throughout the novel is that of human intelligence and the ways in which we acquire knowledge and, ultimately, gain wisdom. Note the path that the creature, by its own description, follows: at first its mind is a blank slate upon which ideas and emotions are written by events, and then, through reason, it transmutes its experience into meaningful thought and takes control of its own actions. This “tabula rasa” model of human intelligence has been debated for several millennia, and probably preceded Aristotle and Plato, each of whom tackled it in his fashion. Mary is most likely drawing on the thinking of John Locke, whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) she was reading when she wrote Frankenstein. But is she swallowing Locke’s tablet whole? Shelley’s characterization of the creature was influenced, as well, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the uncorrupted “natural man,” and further by her personal revulsion at Rousseau’s abandonment of his own children (per James O’Rourke’s essay “‘Nothing More Unnatural’”).  The creature is not a completely blank slate, nor it is he a being with a natural tendency toward the good—but he does learn to assess his own actions and those of others, and to make moral judgements about the difference between what should be and what is. Present-day philosophers and cognitive scientists continue the task of building a theory of the mind and self that incorporates the accumulated knowledge of human and animal neurology, social theory, and psychology. The epicenter of original thought in this area right now is about what constitutes an intelligence, including nonmammalian intelligences, such as social insects, cephalopods (especially octopuses), and certain slime molds (miniscule creatures, neither animals nor plants, some of which exhibit collective problem-solving abilities). In addition, the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger raises provocative, neurologically based questions about whether the human “self” actually exists, or whether it is an illusion, an image generated in the brain, a process rather than a physical entity (see this interview with Metzinger in Nautilus magazine, and his 2003 book Being No One, for more on his thinking). The good news is that you’re not alone in the universe; the bad news is that you’re not actually there at all. Mary’s creature is sufficiently complex and malleable that these twenty-first-century ideas of the mind do not leave him behind. Rather, they inhabit the creature and make him larger.
Mary ShelleyPhilosophy & PoliticsTechnology
Damien Williams: As Charles E. Robinson notes, in his introduction, Mary’s choice of the word “dæmon” throughout the text is deliberate, and not necessarily intended to mean “an evil beast.” Though this spelling seems archaic, if we follow its transformation over time, we can better understand how the term signals Mary’s understanding of the creature, and we can make connections to our modern-day technology, including computing. The Greek word “Δαιμον,” or “Daimon,” meant “divine spirit,” “soul,” or any supernatural entity other than a god. In his Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle used the word “Ευδαιμονια” or “eu-daimonia” to mean “a good spirit,” or a human soul in harmony as a result of cultivating a virtuous character. When the Romans came, the word “δαιμον” became “dæmon,” which was later simplified to “demon” as a result of the Neo-Latin turn beginning in the fourteenth century. But religion and culture changed along with language. As Christianity spread and the Roman Empire gave rise to the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the metaphysical implications of words were altered. “Demons” could no longer be neutral spirits. There was good, and there was Evil, and that meant that anything not sent by God must be evil. A Greek word for “Spirits From God” had already been adopted (“Αγγελος” or “Angel”), so Demons became Evil Spirits. As Mary was versed in Latin and Greek language and history as well as Christian traditions, it is likely that she would have known most of this, leading to her intentional usage of the term. She wanted her readers to understand the otherworldly awe the creature is meant to inspire—a being made to be like us, but also powerful and alien.We still use the word “dæmon” today: It is the name we give to any automated process running in the background of a computer system. If you’ve ever received a bounced email, then you’ve encountered the Mailer-Daemon. Though the name comes the Maxwell’s demon thought experiment, in which a small spirit sits in the background of the universe, computer Dæmons are born of an operation whereby a “parent” process splits off a “child” and then “orphans” it, to complete its operations in the background of the world. As we think about animating spirits, orphaned children, and computer programs, it might behoove us to think more carefully about how we engage with the digital offspring we are generating today. Though it may possess a powerful and even unpredictable nature, a dæmon is not necessarily evil; it merely requires care and cultivation to understand.
Health & MedicineMotivations & Sentiments
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Corey Pressman: These anticipations of joy, albeit tragically inaccurate, are evidence of the creature’s inherent humanity. The restorative power of spring is a well-known tonic for cloudy spirits. Living under the sky as he was, the creature is benefitting from the practice of Shinrin-yoku. A direct translation from Japanese defines Shinrin-yoku as “taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing” (Tsunetsugu et al., 2008). Recent research into the therapeutic effects of forests indicate clear psychological and physiological benefits of spending at least 40 minutes a day outdoors and, if possible, around trees. These positive effects include lower blood pressure, better pulse rate, and a decrease in salivary biomarkers for stress (Tsunetsugu et al., 2008). Other studies associate forest therapy with boosted immune function (Lee et al. 2012) and elevated mood (Berman et al. 2012). These effects may be attribute to phytoncide, a pheromone released by evergreen trees. The creature is also a beneficiary of another human boon—a capacity for awe. The wondrous landscape is having a predictable and specific effect on him. Sensations of wonder, unlike delight or humor, actually work to slow our hearts and provide a broad sense of perspective and grandeur. According to the research, such expansive states serve to instill and reinforce prosocial behavior, optimism, and adjust time perception to the present (Rudd et al. 2012). The creature’s description of his state here reads like a handbook for feeling awe. Frankenstein’s creature’s reverie is short-lived. The poets speak of this, the hidden curse of spring, the peril of a joy so fleeting, however wondrous. April may be, in this way, the “cruellest month,” as T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem “The Waste Land.” In “Such Singing in the Wild Branches,”poet Mary Oliver (2006) at once mourns and reclaims the brevity of spring’s wonder: “Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last / for more than a few moments,” she observes, but “once you’ve been there / you’re there forever.” She goes on: “Are there trees near you / and does your own soul need comforting? / Quick, then— open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song / may already be drifting away.”
Health & MedicineMotivations & Sentiments
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Corey Pressman: The creature is desperate, alone, and terrified. He is poised to do one of the things most frightening to us all—introduce himself to strangers. Any hope for a warm reception is destroyed by self-reflection. Literally. And he has months to stew in misery before the deed is to be done. This most common and self-deprecating anxiety is an everyday opportunity for courage. In this instance, the creature finds courage by way of the imagination. He will crush his fear with the weight of his daydreams. To be fair, his present fear is also the product of daydreaming, of imagining terrible outcomes. Daydream scientist Jerome Singer (1975) calls this sort of fearful ideation “guilty-dysphoric daydreaming.” This is characterized as obsessive, anxious fantasizing. Few things are more human. But so is the creature’s antidote. He wills his daydreams to better pastures, to “ramble in the fields of Paradise,” where he encounters lovely and sympathetic inner angels. This sort of daydreaming is what Singer calls “positive volitional daydreaming,” characterized by playful and hopeful imagery and creative thinking. This isn't just mind-wandering—it is doing so on purpose, and while sustaining a positive focus. Singer’s questionnaire and interview studies as well as more recent brain scan research (Smallwood and Schooler, 2015) indicate that daydreaming encourages open-ended future planning and situation rehearsal; increases creativity; strengthens problem solving abilities; promotes the synthesis of disparate streams of thought; allows us to create meaning from thoughts, experiences, and events; enhances learning; and increases compassion and empathy. Encouraging indeed!
Technology
Bob Beard: Amid this squalor, Victor sets about to build a mate for the creature. The setting for this process predates the era of personal computing by many decades, but is reminiscent of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur myth: that institutional resources and influence are secondary to those with, in the words of management researchers Pino Audia and Chris Rider, “a garage and an idea.” Indeed, Victor only makes real advances in his grisly work after rejecting his formal studies. The garage myth encourages us to venerate figures like Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Allen, whose world-changing technologies were birthed without the benefit of formal settings and unnecessary overhead expenses.During the PC revolution of the 1980s, several science fiction films mined this iconography to great effect. The neighborhood eccentric’s garage in Back to the Future (1985), the condemned New York City fire station in Ghostbusters (1984), and the decrepit warehouse space owned by Jeff Goldblum’s doomed scientist in The Fly (1986)—among others—further entrenched the garage as a symbol of roguish innovation and unspeakable power in the hands of the average person.
Equity & InclusionPhilosophy & Politics
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Andrew Dana Hudson: Karl Marx (1818–1883) was born the same year Frankenstein was first published, less than 100 miles from the Frankenstein Castle in Mühltal, Germany that no doubt inspired Shelley’s title. As a literary-minded youth, Marx no doubt read the novel, perhaps in his early university days or later on a research trip to London in the mid-1840s (it remained popular and in print well past the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto). It is not hard to imagine that Frankenstein’s themes of alienation and rejection in the modern world would have resonated with Marx. Marx’s early writings dwell a great deal on the ways in which industrial society alienates workers from labor, community, and spiritual fulfillment—all of which the creature complains of as well. And indeed, the creature’s story parallels Marx’s own life, much of which, as a young man, was spent conspiring in secret with fellow radicals whilst being hounded around Europe by conservative authorities.Marx’s theories built on a critique of class relations that, as we see in Mary’s writings, was already common in public discourse in the early nineteenth century. The depredation of the lower classes by monarchs and aristocrats was being swapped for exploitation by wealthy capitalists, and everyone (including the creature, as we see in this passage) seemed to know it. From his lurking observations, the monster learns about the poverty, waste, and inequality in the “strange system of human society.” And so he turns his back on the human race, disgusted. I wonder if the story would have been different if the creature had learned about these realities from overhearing Marx’s Das Kapital, rather than Volney’s Ruins of Empires.
Equity & Inclusion
AH
Amanda Holderread Heggen: In 1977, Douglas Biklen and Robert Bogdan developed a list of 10 stereotypes that are widely used in media representations of people with disabilities: pitiable and pathetic, sinister and/or evil, the object of violence, supercrip (possessing specific skills or powers), the object of ridicule, their own worst enemy, a burden, merely atmosphere, asexual, and incapable of participating in everyday life. Within this single confrontation between Victor and the creature, nearly every description of the creature and line of dialogue concisely articulates one or more of these stereotypes. The sole stereotype the creature escapes is “merely atmospheric,” which Mary avoids by making the creature a central figure in the narrative, rather than a passive scene-setting figure in the background of someone else’s story. The creature, of course, is far more complex than just a pasted-together agglomeration of stereotypes. While Biklen and Bogdan’s stereotypes are certainly reinforced throughout the novel, Mary also uses the life trajectory of the creature to critique people’s assumptions about, and treatment of, those who look, speak, and move in ways that are different than what we have been told is “normal.”
Philosophy & PoliticsTechnology
AR
Alecia Radatz: The creature coming to life brings a whole host of possibilities to both the creature and the people that surround him—and as it turns out, most of these possibilities are unintended and unanticipated by his creator. Self-driving vehicles, similarly, will bring a set of intended and unintended possibilities as these modern autonomous creatures come to life. The self-driving vehicle will turn on its lights, rev its engine, and have its wheels convulse into motion, à la Mary’s description. It will also, like the creature, grapple with moral decisions. The difference, however, is that this vehicle will be carefully designed by a variety of stakeholders. The technology is not just the byproduct of a lone scientist’s tinkering, but instead is developed through a system of complex interactions across manufacturing, technological, policy, legal, and software spaces. While the creature could make his own decisions, albeit influenced by his unique surroundings, the self-driving vehicle’s decisions will be structured and dictated by choices made by people working across the system from the beginning, and in ways that are much more scripted than in the story of Frankenstein. Readers can look to a variety of places to learn more about how these vehicles might be designed to interact with the world in very structured ways: safety policy developed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, moral programming in artificial intelligence, and existing transportation infrastructure.
Philosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: With the decline of the notion that government and its rulers were divinely appointed, Enlightenment-era philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sought other justifications to support both the existence and form of government. Often this involved returning to first principles and imagining the state of nature, before the establishment of organized societies, then reconstructing both the reasons for government and methods by which it arose. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588­–1679) described life in the state of nature as nasty, brutish, and short, a condition that government, any government, might ameliorate. In contrast, John Locke (1632–1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) describe a social contract whereby people give up some of their rights and freedoms in order to obtain other rights and protections. Implicit in these latter formulations is the consent of the governed: the notion that, if government fails to perform its intended and desired function, the governed may rise up and replace it. These principles were an important inspiration for the American Revolution and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Here, the creature comes to recognize the need for government, grounded in people’s ability to harm one another.
Philosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: The Swiss legal system differs from the English and American systems in several important respects. The English and American systems are “common law” systems, in which the judges make the law, which can be found in the opinions they issue. Even where there is an underlying statute, courts will look to the opinions of other courts to see how the statute should be construed. In contrast, the Swiss system (and that of most European countries) is a “civil law” system, in which the law is found in codes or statutes based on Roman law and in particular on the Emperor Justinian’s Code, compiled in the sixth century. The civil codes, and not the decisions of other judges, purportedly contain the answers for all legal questions. Another key difference is that the English and American systems rely on juries as fact finders, while civil law countries rely on judges.
Equity & InclusionPhilosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: Victor’s declaration flips on its head the famous statement by English jurist William Blackstone that "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," revealing his utter disdain for the judges, who seem more interested in getting a conviction than discovering the truth. This notion can be traced back to Abraham, bargaining with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33), and forward to the present as one of the cornerstones of the American criminal justice system. Indeed, it underpins our presumption of innocence and a host of procedural protections designed to ensure that the accused have a fair trial, including placing the burden of proving guilt on the state.
Philosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: The administrative state, with its thousands of government employees, is a fairly modern invention. Before modern transportation and communications, there were plenty of areas with scant government presence. This was true of the courts, as well. Thus, judges would “ride circuit.” They would move from town to town, dealing with whatever legal issues had arisen since the last visit. Small-scale issues were typically handled by a local citizen, often a noble, designated as a justice of the peace. More serious crimes were saved for the traveling judges. Thus, when Victor was charged with a serious crime, he was held until the next assizes—that is, visit from a judge—when the charges against him could be heard by the judge, and if appropriate, a jury the judge empaneled.
Equity & InclusionPhilosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: The legal system at the time of the novel had progressed somewhat from the days of the witch trials, where defendants were subjected to various tests (like the trial by water, in which suspected witches were bound and tossed into water to see whether they would sink or float) to determine their guilt or innocence. Nonetheless, an abiding belief persisted that a defendant’s demeanor (especially nervousness) could readily disclose guilt. Today, we still observe demeanor to assess credibility, but we typically require more than that to convict.
Motivations & SentimentsTechnology
Ed Finn: After all that he has suffered because of his work, Victor still manages to condescend to those who he feels are inferior to his creative genius. In Mary’s time the word “projector” was somewhat akin to our “inventor” or “entrepreneur,” but with the added negative sense of a schemer or huckster. Victor’s hubris at the end of this novel has its echoes in contemporary entrepreneurs who we both celebrate for their genius and chastise for their self-importance, particularly the tech industry titans of Silicon Valley. As Heather E. Douglas argues in her essay in this volume, the call of “technical sweetness” can overcome many ethical qualms, and it can also function retrospectively for those in its sway, allowing them to convince themselves that ethical compromises were worthwhile sacrifices for some technical achievement.
Technology
Ed Finn: Victor considers using the law as a kind of instrument for inflicting a punishment on himself in this passage, assuming that its operations will be predictable and just. There is a growing tendency to conflate the law with other deterministic processes in contemporary culture, particularly as we depend on computational systems to help us make decisions. The legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has pointed out the dangers of conflating legal code, the body of laws that make up our system of justice, with software code, the collection of algorithms and programming structures that make up our increasingly computational world. We have a tendency to imagine computers as purely objective, rational systems—a little like Dr. Spock or Data from Star Trek—and to trust their recommendations more than we would  other people’s. Software, like the legal system, is built by fallible humans and embeds the assumptions and biases of those who created it, just as it embeds their ambitions and hopes. The unjust punishment of Justine is a reminder that these systems are imperfect instruments which can only reach their highest purpose through the dedication and attentive engagement of thoughtful humans.
Health & Medicine
Ed Finn: Victor’s lament here reminds us of the paradoxical fragility and resilience of the human form. William, Justine, and Clerval were defenseless against the attacks of the creature, their lives easily snuffed out by the creature’s superior strength and agility. And yet Victor can suffer the grief of their deaths, and the remorse of his own role in those deaths, and live on to experience further pain. On the one hand, our vulnerability poses significant challenges to engineers and designers creating technologies and materials for humans to interact with, from the air bags in our cars to the challenges NASA faces in planning long-term missions for astronauts in our hazardous solar system. On the other hand, our resilience and adaptability have enabled us to survive many natural and human-instigated calamities, and we continue to adapt to our tools and systems on social, cultural, and even biological levels. As we continue to adapt to smartphones and other networked devices, are we becoming more or less resilient?
Motivations & SentimentsTechnology
Ed Finn: The novel reflects on the importance of letter-writing as a way to maintain social ties (in this passage, a letter has an almost-magical power to revivify). In Mary’s day, letters were a vital form of discourse across international boundaries, and in London the Royal Mail would deliver letters several times a day (seven times a day by 1844, and up to 12 times a day by the end of the nineteenth century), enabling correspondence roughly equivalent to the pace of email in the early twenty-first century. Indeed, many of the concerns Mary’s letter-writers reflect on throughout the novel are still present in our internet era, where digital communications technology seems to simultaneously bring us together in new communities and reinforce our solitude and loneliness. Unlike the hand-written, deeply personalized letters of Mary’s era, most of our correspondence today is more ephemeral and anonymous—or even pseudonymous—creating many more opportunities for misunderstanding and deliberately cruel and dehumanizing speech. How would Walton’s expedition to the Arctic have changed if he and his sister had access to the internet and contemporary social media? How might their relationship and connection to one another be different?
Philosophy & Politics
Ed Finn: Once the creature meets his basic needs and begins to encounter other sentient beings, he starts to think of a future beyond his immediate problems and circumstances. The “thousand pictures” that the creature imagines here reflect that form of imagination where we envision possible future scenarios as a way to evaluate them. Professional researchers and consultants use variations of this method in the fields of foresight studies, futurism, and related disciplines to explore possible futures. By extrapolating from known data, constructing fact-based scenarios, and juxtaposing visible trends and events with possible future developments, these practitioners provide models for what might happen, and use these insights to offer advice about the choices we should make today. The science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut pointed out at the end of his life that there is no “Secretary of the Future” on staff in the U.S. Cabinet, and there is almost no long-range planning going in the U.S. government, “no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren.” If we started to count the needs and opportunities of future generations into present-day decision-making, how might that change the choices we make?
Technology
Ed Finn: The creature is more powerful and agile than Victor, echoing the many ways that contemporary science and technology quickly accelerate beyond our expectations. In 1965, an early pioneer in the semiconductor field posited Moore’s Law, which predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double roughly every year until 1975, and then every two years after that. Moore’s Law has held ever since, leading computer power to double roughly every 18 months. This kind of exponential growth has gradually brought more and more problems within the grasp of computational systems, from driving cars to predicting stock markets. Today, distributed computation in the “cloud” services many systems, including Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, using tremendous quantities of electricity to run millions of processors operating in parallel. As computation continues to expand its reach, it also continues to master new fields of practice, from playing games of chess and Go to composing music and writing horror fiction.
Health & Medicine
Ed Finn: Scientists have pursued life extension research for decades, exploring the process by which cells and organisms age and die as a genetically determined phenomenon. For example, the geneticist Cynthia Kenyon discovered that a single gene mutation could double the lifespan of the roundworm C. Elegans, and researchers continue to wrestle with the question of why some cells reproduce indefinitely while others gradually “slow down” and contribute to our mortality. This work approaches mortality not as a universal certainty but as a kind of disease, one which can be treated and perhaps reversed. One frame for understanding how multicellular organisms age is the scientific field of epigenetics, or the ways in which genes and gene expression interact with the environment. The shocks, diseases, and bad habits our bodies suffer from during our lifespans can all leave their traces in our genes and contribute to signals for aging and altered cellular behavior. If scientists succeed in unraveling the mystery of aging, we will confront a host of new questions about who should be allowed to live indefinitely and how we decide to die—not to mention what human art and culture might look like without the grim fact of mortality shadowing every endeavor.
Philosophy & Politics
AC
Adam Chodorow: During times of war, British ships were entitled to take enemy vessels, including merchant vessels, as “prizes.” The prizes belonged to the crown, but the captain and crew were awarded some portion of the value of the ship and merchandise as prize-money as a way to create incentives for the taking of such ships. A Prize Court determined whether the ship was properly captured and how much would be distributed and to whom. Payouts depended upon a sailor’s rank and function on the capturing ship. Many a sailor made significant sums in prize-money, but, as sailors are wont to do, many squandered their prizes as quickly as they earned them. Thus, the phrase “spending money like a drunken sailor” contains an implicit reference to prize-money, though it is by no means limited to such funds.
Influences & AdaptationsMary Shelley
Ed Finn: Lord George Gordon Byron (1788–1824) answered his own challenge that evening by writing the first paragraph of a vampire story inspired by the German ghost stories. John Polidori (1795–1821) later extended that beginning into “The Vampyre” (1819), a short story that went on to inspire Bram Stoker’s tremendously successful novel Dracula in 1897.
ScienceTechnology
NH
Nicole Herbots: When Captain Walton talks about the “wondrous power [of] the needle,” he talks about magnetism and its very first application in a compass. For centuries, people ascribed magical powers to magnetite and lodestones, until William Gilbert (1540–1603) first discovered the basic features of magnetism and the fact that Earth itself is a weak magnet. The links between electricity and magnetism were a major subject of scientific investigation during Mary’s lifetime, and a number of expeditions departed for the North and South Poles in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the planet’s magnetic field.
Influences & Adaptations
David H Guston: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child!” Perhaps Mary has Victor make this apparent reference to Shakespeare’s play King Lear (I.iv.288–289) to show that he recognizes his paternity of the creature, but, like Lear, he still does not recognize his own full measure of culpability and responsibility.
Motivations & SentimentsPhilosophy & Politics
CC
Carlos Castillo-Chavez: Robert Walton, in letters to his sister, Mrs. Saville, revisits the conditions of his own early life: “[my] education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading … [and I] inherited the fortune of my cousin” (here). The knowledge gained from understanding his own initial conditions may have inspired Walton’s decision to set challenging goals for himself. He seems to have worked hard at addressing some of his educational shortcomings as well as his limited perspective on hard work and hardship. Albert Bandura reminds us that “people motivate and guide their actions by setting themselves challenging goals and then mobilizing their skills and effort to reach them. After people attain the goal they have been pursuing, those with a strong sense of efficacy set higher goals for themselves” (1994, 265). Walton does not appear to be an exception. His intellectual isolation grows during this fateful voyage, with the need for finding a wiser, highly experienced, caring “companion” becoming of paramount importance. His cry for intellectual companionship, a mentor or mentors, is rewarded in two ways, with approval and intimacy. The value that Walton places on approval is rather telling: “I must own I felt a little proud, when my captain offered me the second dignity in the vessel, and entreated me to remain with the greatest earnestness; so valuable did he consider my services” (here). However, it is the arrival of an educated, enigmatic stranger that brings forward the excitement that Walton places on intellectual companionship (mentor–mentee dynamics): he worries that he “should find no friend on the wide ocean; yet I have found a man … so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated; and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence” (here). Walton finds a “true friend,” an intellectual companion, a great mentor, a divine wanderer “a celestial spirit, that has a halo around him” (here).
Motivations & SentimentsPhilosophy & Politics
MM
Mary Margaret Fonow: This is how Victor appears to the leader of the rescuing ship, Captain Robert Walton, though Walton knows only that Victor is European and not comparable to the seemingly “savage” (here) creature he is chasing. Even in his much diminished state, Victor’s noble qualities are apparent. Victor might become the noble friend Walton so longs for, someone of equal status who understands him and can provide wise counsel. Mary attributes both noble and not-so-noble qualities to Victor, but Walton will need to hear the full story before the complexities of Victor’s character are revealed.
Equity & Inclusion
Joey Eschrich: Throughout Frankenstein, Mary utilizes an epistolary structure: significant sections of the novel are made up of letters exchanged among the characters. These letters are often long and tender, and they contain a wealth of personal details and endearments that do little to move the plot forward. This approach might seem like an inefficient storytelling strategy, but it is quite the opposite. Mary uses these letters strategically to emphasize the importance of the social bonds that give characters such as Victor and Captain Walton emotional sustenance during incredibly stressful times. The letters are tangible artifacts of emotional labor—the investments of time, wit, and emotional energy that make human relationships functional and rewarding. They contrast with the creature’s life and reveal precisely what he is missing. He has no one with whom to share his experiences and frustrations, so his life becomes unbearable, and he lashes out violently.Language is an important way that we show love and understanding as well as receive it. The laborious, solitary way that the creature acquires language, through scavenging books and eavesdropping, demonstrates just how removed he is from any form of nurturing social interaction.Walton narrowly avoids making the same mistake as Victor, pursuing scientific discovery without considering the safety and well-being of the people around him. Walton is luckily in continuous written contact with his sister, Margaret, who lovingly discourages him from going through with his expedition to the North Pole. Their conversation, conducted through a series of letters, might be what saves his life and the lives of his crew.
Influences & Adaptations
David H Guston: Mary has Captain Walton allude to the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). In the poem, which Mary heard Coleridge reading during his many visits to the Godwin house, the title character kills an albatross that has been following his boat, turning a good luck sign into an ill omen.
Mary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
MM
Mary Margaret Fonow: There are two meanings to the word nobility, and they are often conflated. The first refers to possessing a character with the highest qualities found in human beings, such as integrity, decency, honor, and goodness. But these qualities are often attributed to persons of the highest social rank in society—the second meaning of the word. The lieutenant, who gives up the woman he is engaged to when she says she loves another and generously provides her lover with the financial means to gain the acceptance of her family, goes well beyond what is expected. Perhaps this behavior earns him the exclamation point? Mary gives these noble qualities to Walton’s second in command, perhaps challenging the taken-for-granted hierarchy that typically ascribed these qualities to individuals at the top. Yet she qualifies this choice by stating that the lieutenant didn’t know any better, given that he spent so much time aboard a ship, further hinting that in the end his sacrifice was no great loss to him. In real life, Mary marries into a noble family that opposes her union with their son because of her father’s indebtedness.
Equity & InclusionMary Shelley
MJ
Maria Jimenez: When I moved to a different high school, I tended to isolate myself from my new classmates by being distracted texting my old friends in class. I’ll never forget my first friend at this school. She introduced me to all my new classmates and advised me to live in the moment. She made me feel connected to my classmates and a part of the community.
RB
Ron Broglio: Throughout the novel, the problem of companionship recurs for Walton, for Victor, and for Victor’s creature. Friendship is one of the foundations for community because it connects the individual to a larger human endeavor—be it society, government, or scientific exploration. The novel explores the value of trust and camaraderie wherein one can divulge deep concerns, passions, and ambitions with another and so gain another’s insight into one’s own perspective. Throughout the novel, the failure to connect with a friend becomes a problem with serious consequences. Mary rarely has such companionship except, perhaps, with Percy Shelley. Percy’s friendship with Lord Byron is well documented and acclaimed as an example of romantic poets and thinkers who shared ideas and artistic passion.
Philosophy & Politics
AA
Ariel Anbar: The phrase manifest destiny emerged in nineteenth-century America. It described the notion that the expansion of the American people, culture, and institutions across North America was a mission of divine Providence, not merely one driven by practical need for more land and resources. But the concept is much more deeply rooted and widespread, appearing in the earliest Western writings in the form of the Promised Land of Abraham and his Israelite descendants. Robert Walton invokes the concept implicitly in his exploration, which seems to need no justification other than that it might help him to “accomplish some great purpose” (here). By the nineteenth century, the development of science and industry not only facilitated such explorations but also made the conquest of knowledge itself into a frontier that began to rival the conquest of land in importance—and that was similarly justified in terms of a manifest destiny. The story of Frankenstein mirrors this transformation as Walton’s determination to visit that which has never before been visited is juxtaposed alongside Victor’s determination to do that which has never before been done. We often use the metaphor of the frontier—for example, “frontiers of research”—in describing the reach of scientific inquiry. Worried that the American westward expansion and the manifest destiny that fueled it had run its course, MIT engineer and presidential adviser Vannevar Bush (1945) coined the phrase the endless frontier for the title of a report issued to President Harry Truman toward the end of World War II. The report advocated for continued strong support of scientific research by the federal government after the war ended because scientific research could provide the inspiration and economic benefits that westward expansion had previously provided.
Influences & AdaptationsScience
BA
Braden Allenby: For moderns, this comment may seem self-evident, if a little florid. But such Promethean ambition does not characterize all historical periods or all cultures or all individuals; rather, it reflects the interesting combination of curiosity, ambition, and historical perspective that coevolved with the European exploration of science and a profoundly multicultural world. Mary was writing at the close of the Age of Discovery, during which Europeans rounded the southern tip of Africa, “discovered” and colonized the New World, and circumnavigated the globe. Polar exploration was one remaining feat. It was also the age of romanticism, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), as well as the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). This eagerness for exploration is express in “Ulysses,” the poem written in 1833 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892):“I cannot rest from travel: I will drinkLife to the lees: All times I have enjoy’dGreatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with thoseThat loved me, and alone, on shore, and whenThro’ scudding drifts the rainy HyadesVext the dim sea: I am become a name;For always roaming with a hungry heart.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .I am a part of all that I have met;Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fadesFor ever and forever when I move.” (Tennyson 2004, 49)The irony, at least to modern sensibilities, is that this romantic language befits the pursuit of art, not the rational pursuit of science.
Mary ShelleyScience
NM
Noor Malallah: Shelley's objective to find the real truth of the elementary concepts of human being nature and provide several impressive suggestions associated with those basic human facts. The allusion is always to the age of Romanticism as well as the Gothic novel. Romantic novels concern themselves with enthusiasm, not explanation, and creativity and intuition, as opposed to the logical.
Jason Scott Robert: Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), a friend of Mary’s father, William Godwin, was a physician, naturalist, philosopher, and poet. He contributed an early formulation of a single origin for all life, which undergirded what came to be known as the theory of evolution as elaborated by his grandson, Charles Darwin.