“We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves – such a friend ought to be – do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.” [1]

frankenstein-2[2]

Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus written by Mary Wollstonecraft is one of the most prominent works of the literary season known as Gothic Revival. First of all, it is pivotal to understand what are we referring to by the adjective “gothic”. The word gothic has a variety of meanings, that goes from the simple adjective related to the Goths, an eastern Germanic tribe, to the much more complex ideas. Vasari identified as gothic the typical “barbaric” and nordic style of architecture in contraposition to the classic style of the Italian Renaissance. It was just in the second half of the 1700 that “gothic” was linked to a particular kind of fiction that explored the ideas of terror, mystery and sublime.

“I busied myself to think of a story to rival those which had excited us […] I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together […]  by some extraordinary means it began to move my voluntary motion. ” [3]

Mary’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, as well as the preface written by her husband Percy Shelley, give us an outlook on how she began to think about the plot. They spent the summer of 1816 with Lord George Gordon Byron and the doctor, John Polidori and it was not uncommon for them to spend the night at Byron’s Villa Diodati, reading a collection of old german ghost tales entitled “Fantasmagoriana”. Those were nights filled with sexual tension and frustration, anguish and morbidity seemed to have affected Percy Shelley so sorely that during one of Byron’s reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel he was forced to leave the room. Furthermore, the explosion of a volcano in Indonesia filled the atmosphere with debris that exerted a great influence on the european weather, making it cold and damp. The discovery of large dark spots on the sun by scientists added up to the sense of unease.  [4]

IBR-2149699 - © - H -D Falkenstein/ima[5]

She was well aware of the scientific research occurring in Europe at that time. William Hawes and Thomas Cohan were fascinated by the idea of life and death, and how this two states are sometimes indistinguishable one from the other. They set up a society whose aims was to resuscitate people who suffered from “apparent death”. This anxiety was well rooted in people since the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie where the philosophes distinguished two kinds of death: Incomplete and Absolute death. Incomplete death was the state from which one could be brought back to life, whilst there was no recovery from absolute death.

Lorsque la corruption commence à gagner, le corps devient successivement bleuâtre, livide, noir ; il exhale une odeur insoutenable, particulière, qu’on nomme cadavéreuse ; bien-tôt après les vers y éclosent ; les différentes parties se désunissent, perdent leur lien, leur figure, et leur cohésion ; les molécules dégagées sont volatiles, s’évaporent ; et enfin, après leur dissipation il ne reste aucun vestige d’homme. […]  J’appellerai le premier degré mort imparfaite, ou susceptible de secours, qui comprendra tout ce temps où il n’y a qu’un simple inexercice des fonctions vitales, et où les organes, instruments de ces fonctions, sont encore propres à recommencer leur jeu.

When the corruption starts, the bodies become successively blue, livid and black ; they exhale an unsustainable smell, that we call “cadaverous” ; After a short time the eggs are hatched and the worms come out ; the different parts spilt and they lose their connection, their figure and their cohesion ; the free molecules are volatile and evaporate ; in the end, after their dissipation, we haven’t any remnant of a man. […] I call this the first degree of imperfect death, susceptible to rescue, it comprehends all the time where we have a simple inaction of vital functions and where the organs, instruments of these functions, are proper to resume their activity.  [6]

James Curry a physician at Guy’s hospital in London wrote an essay where he argued about the methods to cure what he called “apparent death” and the symptoms of absolute death.

1. In apparent as well as in absolute death the breathing is at a stand; the Heart ceases to beat ; no motion is observable in any part of the body ; and the person is not sensible of pain from pinching, pricking or even burning his flash.

2. The important difference between the two states is this, – that in absolute death, the Vital Principle is completely extinguished, whilst in apparent death, it only lies dormant and may again be roused into action, and the person thereby completely restored to life. […]

5. Various are the appearances which have been pointed out by different writers as signs of the Vital Principle being completely extinguished. […] Thus the cold and rigid state of the body ; the livid and contracted, or the black and swoln countenance. [7]

As we can read from these extracts of Curry’s essay, the only symptom that gives us the assurance of absolute death is the decomposition of the corpse, that does not happen in the case in which it is only apparent.

In general the states of suspended animation, such as sleeping, coma or fainting, fascinated the intellectuals of that time; Polidori himself wrote a dissertation on sleepwalking. Mary Shelley used the information gathered from the various scientific essays to describe these states in her novel. A clear example of this can be seen in this extract of chapter five, where Victor Frankenstein, having just witnessed the awakening of the monster he created, faints as a result of the nervous strain:

“I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness.”[8]

More scientific information came from Luigi Galvani, that conducted some experiments on frog’s, whose legs twitched as if alive if the nerves were stimulated through electricity.

1024px-luigi_galvani_experiment[9]

His nephew Giovanni Aldini was able to experiment on a human corpse years later, owning to “the Murder Act” (1751) that added the punishment of dissection after having been hanged. It was reported that Aldini was able to make one of his test subjects, George Forester, open his eyes for a short while.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Mary was not solely influenced by science in the production of her ouvre, but also by greek mythology and english literature. The full title of her creation, Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, is an evident reference to the tale of the Titan Prometheus. He was the wisest of all titans and is credited to have given fire to the humankind. He was later punished by the Gods, who wanted to keep the knowledge all for themselves. The parallels between the two tales are obvious, as both Victor and the Titan seek enlightenment, they are both overreachers, in the sense that they both go beyond what is allowed to them, and are severely sanctioned for this. Prometheus will spend his eternity having his liver eaten by an eagle for having stolen the knowledge from the Gods, Victor will have all the people he cares about killed by his own creation for having created life, which is a faculty exclusively permitted to God.

Here at least

we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. [10]

Another analogue figure is John Milton’s Satan. Satan in Paradise Lost is a sort of antihero rather than the real antagonist. He struggles to accomplish his goal, he battles his own weaknesses. He is extremely complex and flawed and strikes the reader with his willingness to accept eternal damnation at the sole purpose of being free. He is proud, and this is his fatal flaw, even in a place like heaven where everybody is happy and loved equally, he demonstrates a great amount of selfishness. He is confident that he could overthrow God and this vanity will be his ultimate enemy, he tries to overreach the power and he is punished for it.

By Simona Montella

[1] Extract from Letter IV to Margaret Seville, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

[2] Original illustration

[3] Introduction to Frankenstein’s 1813 edition by Mary Shelley

[4] Greg Buzzwell, Mary Shelly Frankenstein and Villa Diodati. Article written for British Library.

[5] A view of Villa Diodati

[6] Encyclopédie or systematic dictionary of sciences, arts and crafts. Edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alambert.

[7] James Curry, Popular Observations on Apparent Death from Drowning, Hanging, Suffocation by Noxious Vapours, Fainting Fits, Intoxication, Lightning, Exposure to cold &&

[8] Extract from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Chapter V.

[9] Picture 1: Experiment De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari.

[10] Satan’s speech, from Book I of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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