A Middlesex University resource by Andrew Roberts

Pandora's box - The gift of science

Frankenstein, science and industry

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is, amongst other things, a novel about the natural sciences. Whilst writing it she was reading a paper on chemistry by Humphry Davy, a man she had known as a visitor to her father's home.

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) pioneered electro-chemistry. His fame had started when he experimented on himself with laughing gas when working in Bristol on the medical uses of gases. Then, in 1800, two other chemists decomposed water into gases (hydrogen and oxygen) by passing electricity through it. Electricity generated by batteries was a new and exciting discovery that many were trying to put to scientific use. Working in the Royal Institution's new and advanced London laboratories, Davy began the decomposition of matter into its elements by means of electricity. He came to the conclusion that electricity is a force that can not only split matter, but also holds all matter together in some way. Electricity is the clue to the decomposition and reconstruction of the matter of the universe and those who explore with it can get close to understanding how creation works.

The Royal Institution, where Davy worked, was founded in 1799/1800 to teach

"the application of the new discoveries in science to the improvement of arts and manufactures."

Davy was well known for his dramatic public experiments. A famous cartoon shows him as part of a group demonstrating nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

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Frankenstein story

Last Man

Mary Shelley's early life

Mary Shelley's dream

Mary Shelley's introduction

Prometheus and Pandora

Science and industry

Mary Wollstonecraft's version

web article
under construction
by andrew roberts
based on
1989 and 1990
printed articles

Davy and laughing gas

Humphry Davy is the one with the evil grin and the bellows. The cartoonist's greatest interest seems to have been that the human victim passes gasses through his rear (not shown), but the detail on the bench emphasises the closeness of these experiments to the exploration of what constitutes life and death. The, newly discovered, oxygen gas is the source of life which, when drained from a bell jar containing a living creature (see the toad) removes its life in the seme way that it will snuff out a candle (also shown).

In later demonstrations, a huge galvanic battery was used to send electricity through solutions of chemicals and divide them into their component parts. [E. Halevy 1913/24. England in 1815, part 3, chapter 2, section 15.]

Davy presented his findings on the electrical decomposition of matter in a lecture to the Royal Society on 20.11.1806. Despite France and Britain being at war, he was awarded a prize by the Institut de France

In the succeeding years, Davy moved from the electrolysis of chemicals in solution to the electrolysis of molten chemicals and, by this means, isolated several previously unknown elements: potassium (K) from molten potash, sodium (Na) from common salt, magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), strontium (Sr) and barium (Ba). He also used potassium to prepare boron (B).

It is not difficult to imagine the excitement when potassium, sodium and magnesium were discovered. These soft metals react with air and water in dramatic ways. Davy described potassium as particles which, when thrown into water:

"skimmed about excitedly with a hissing sound, and soon burned with a lovely lavender light."

The fiery agitation of the chemicals was so infectious that Davy himself

"danced around and was delirious with joy"

In October and November 1816, Mary was reading either his A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802) or the introduction to a book he wrote in 1812 called Chemical Philosophy [Penguin Frankenstein page 24. See also page 12].

Davy described himself as a philosopher and the following extracts from the 1802 paper that Mary may have been reading show connection of science to the philosophy of the time, and to Frankenstein:

Humphry Davy's scientific philosophy

"Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber... How different is man informed...by science and the arts! Knowing his wants and being able to provide for them, he is capable of anticipating future enjoyments, and of connecting hope with an infinite variety of ideas. He is in some measure independent of chance or accident for his pleasures. Science has given to him an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it has bestowed upon him powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments".

"At the beginning of the seventeenth century very little was known concerning the philosophy of the intimate actions of bodies on each other.. The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery... has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of the gases, have been ascertained; the phenomena of electricity have been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs."

"The human mind has been lately active and powerful; but there is very little reason for believing that the period of its greatest strength is passed... In reasoning concerning the future hopes of the human species, we may look forward with confidence to a state of society in which the different orders and classes of men will contribute more effectually to the support of each other than they have hitherto done. This state indeed seems to be approaching fast; for in consequence of the multiplication of the means of instruction, the man of science and the manufacturer are daily becoming more nearly assimilated to each other."

Science and Industry

A small example of the practical links between science and industry was the Askesian Society, which met at the home of an industrialist, William Allen, and used his chemical factory for scientific experiments [E. Halevy 1913/24. England in 1815, part 3, chapter 2, section 15.] If we look at the other connections of William Allan we will see how industry and natural science were also linked with some of the developments in the social sciences that we discuss in the next part of the course.

William Allen and Jeremy Bentham were amongst those who helped the socialist Robert Owen to buy out New Lanark textile mills in 1807 when his other business partners objected to his welfare reforms (V. Cohen, 1932, The Nineteenth Century. A Biographical History, page 88).

Allen was a Quaker who edited a magazine called The Philanthropist, which published, amongst other things, articles by James Mill and Bentham. [E. Halevy 1913/24, England in 1815, part 3, chapter 2, section 17.]

Davy's confidence in the potentially beneficial effects of science and industry was common, and you will find scientists in Frankenstein who speak with the same confidence. Compare, for example, M. Waldman's "panegyric upon modern chemistry" with the extract from Davy.

But it is not Shelley's mood. The original Frankenstein came to her in a nightmare. He was a "pale student of unhallowed arts" in a dream which woke her up in "terror". She wrote it down as a short story and it seemed so significant that over the next twelve months she developed it into the novel ["Author's Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition" Penguin Frankenstein pages 55-60.]

Robert Walton, the narrator of the novel, was not in the original dream. He is a scientific geographer who goes on a voyage of discovery to seek the centre of magnetic power drawing the compass needle to the north pole.

Here, as elsewhere, Shelley reflects the scientific passions of her time. In reality the north magnetic pole was eventually reached by James Clark Ross in 1831. (Although the pole itself was not reached until 1909 by Robert Peary.)

Amongst the ice-packs, on the top of the world, where one might have expected only eskimos, his ship's crew sight two fellow Europeans: a man monster fleeing across the ice on a dog sleigh, and a frail chemist, Dr. Frankenstein, who seeks the monster to destroy him.

These were disturbing times in the history of the mind. Through chemistry it appeared possible that the nature of matter, including living matter, might cease to be a divine mystery.

Humans were learning to take apart, and put together again, the atoms of God's universe. Frankenstein reveals to Walton that he has taken this process so far as to have created another being: the monster that he now seeks to destroy.

Read the novel and find out for yourself why Mary Shelley's fantasy has haunted people for over a hundred and fifty years. Many people have tried to explain the significance of Frankenstein's creation and self destruction. Now it is your turn to share the nightmare and try to explain it.

Dalton and the atoms of God's universe.

The limitation of chemistry, according to Davy, was not so much in the field of practice as that of theory. "Chemistry is far from being perfect", he wrote in 1802, "It consists of a number of collections of facts connected together by different relations; but as yet it is not furnished with a precise and beautiful theory". But John Dalton (1766-1844) was soon to provide that precise and beautiful theory. He worked on the hypothesis that all matter was made of a limited range of elements, ultimate particles of which (atoms) joined together to make particles of a different nature (molecules). Water (H2O) is, for example, the combination of two atoms of the gas hydrogen with one of oxygen. On Dalton's system it would have been represented by a diagram:

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science Dalton used circles with different patterns to represent the simple atoms. These might form combinations of twos, three, four, five, six, seven (or more) to form all the different materials of the universe.

In this diagram, water is represented as one dotted circle (hydrogen) and one blank circle (oxygen). Presumably, the calculation that oxygen has two hydrogen atoms was made later.

By clicking on Dalton's diagram you will reach extracts (on another site) from A New System of Chemical Philosophy (Manchester, 1808), from which I borrowed the diagram.

Mary Shelley's early life

Mary Shelley was Mary Wollstonecraft's youngest daughter. Her mother died when she was a few days old.

That does not mean that Mary Shelley did not know her mother. She knew her through other people's memories of her, and she also knew her the same way that you can know her: through her books.

Mary Shelley also wrote books. Her first book was called:

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

This develops her mother's interest in the progress of reason in the world, but for Mary Shelley there is a dark underside to that progress.

Mary's father, William Godwin remarried when Mary was four. His new wife already had two children. So Mary's brothers and sisters were

Fanny Imlay,
Charles Clairmont, aged 7,
Jane (later Clair) Clairmont, also four.

On 27.7.1814 (Or 28.7.1814) Mary eloped to France with a married man, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They then went to Switzerland. They returmed, through Germany and Holland, arriving in London on 13.9.1814.

During this period. Mary's father, William Godwin, was not speaking to her.

She, Percy and their friends carried out experiments in love.

On 22.2.1815 Mary gave birth to, Clara, two months premature. Clara died on 6.3.1815. On 19.3.1815 Mary wrote in her journal:

"Dream that my little baby came to life again - that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived."

Mary and Percy's son, William (the only child to survive to adulthood), was born in January 1816.

On 3.5.1816 they left on a journey towards Italy, in pursuit of the poet Byron. They met in the Alps.

In Byron's villa on the Lake of Geneva in June 1816 she had a nightmare about a "pale student of unhallowed arts" which woke her up in "terror".

She wrote it down as a short story and it seemed so significant that over the next twelve months she developed it into her first novel, Frankenstein

24.7.1816 Mary's journal entry reads "Write my story"; her first written reference to Frankenstein

In September 1816 they returned to England.

That autumn two horrible events took place:

1) Fanny Imlay committed suicide

2) Harriet Shelley was found drowned.

Mary and Percy married soon after.

Frankenstein was finished in 1817.

It was published anonymously in 1818, with an introduction by Mary's husband.

A reprint was published in 1823 with Mary's name on it, and an introduction by Mary explaining the origin of the story.


The original Frankenstein came to her in a kind of wide-awake nightmare.

Frankenstein was a student. Someone, perhaps like you, who is at college, trying to work out what the world is all about.

He thinks that he has found out so much about how the world is constructed, that he can make another man, like himself.

In her dream, what Mary saw was this student, Frankenstein, kneeling down by the body of a man that he has put together from pieces of dead people.

There he is, fiddling about with the dead body lying quietly in front of him. Then he sets in motion some kind of machinery.

"I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out.. show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion."

She is horrified, and so, she says, must Frankenstein have been - because what he is doing is to echo, in some form, the creation of God.

Sometimes we think that what is horrible about Frankenstein's act is that he creates a horrible monster. This is not what Shelley says. She says that what is frightening about what he is doing is something common to all sciences: he is trying to work out how the world is put together and, recreate it.

Sometimes science only does this mentally. We try to create a mental model of the universe, or of society. Sometimes it tries to recreate it in reality. We don't just theorize about atoms: we split them in pieces. We do not just theorize about societies, we try to create ideal societies - As in the French revolution.



The Publishers of the Standard Novels, in selecting "Frankenstein" for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing to comply, because I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me -- "How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.

It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing. As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to "write stories." Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air -- the indulging in waking dreams -- the following up trains of thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings. In the latter I was a close imitator -- rather doing as others had done, then putting down the suggestions of my own mind. What I wrote was intended at least for one other eye -- my childhood's companion and friend; but my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed -- my dearest pleasure when free.

I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy. I wrote then -- but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered. I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me too common-place an affair as regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations.

After this my life became busier, and reality stood in place of fiction. My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page of fame. He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation, which even on my own part I cared for then, though since I have become infinitely indifferent to it. At this time he desired that I should write, not so much with the idea that I could produce any thing worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed the promise of better things hereafter. Still I did nothing. Travelling, and the cares of a family, occupied my time; and study, in the way of reading, or improving my ideas in communication with his far more cultivated mind, was all of literary employment that engaged my attention.

In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.

But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet, in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, by the moon's fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. The shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gate swung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep. Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead of the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon the stalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.

We will each write a ghost story, said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us. The noble author began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery, and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns our language, than to invent the machinery of a story, commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key- hole -- to see what I forget -- something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted. The illustrious poets also, annoyed the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.

I busied myself to think of a story, -- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror -- one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered -- vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I place my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, -- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, -- my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!

Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.

At first I thought but of a few pages -- of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him.

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations.

I will add but one word as to the alterations I have made. They are principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances. I have mended the language where it was so bald as to interfere with the interest of the narrative; and these changes occur almost exclusively in the beginning of the first volume. Throughout they are entirely confined to such parts as are mere adjuncts to the story, leaving the core and substance of it untouched.

M.W.S. London, October 15, 1831.

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
First published 1818 (anonymous). Republished 1823 with Mary Shelley as the author, and again in 1832. The 1818 frontispiece has this verse from Milton's Paradise Lost - the complaint of Adam:

"Did I request the, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solict thee
From darkness to promote me? --"

The story


The novel begins, not with a chapter, but by a letter from Robert Walton in St Petersburg to his sister in London:

"I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, 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 disc 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 phenomena 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 forever. 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."

Amongst the ice-packs, on the top of the world, where one might have expected only eskimos, Walton's crew sight two fellow Europeans: a man monster fleeing across the ice on a dog sleigh, and a frail chemist, Dr. Frankenstein, who seeks the monster to destroy him.


Frankenstein describes to Walton his intellectual journey from alchemy to modern science.

Chapter 3

"Partly from curiosity, and partly from idleness, I went into the lecturing room, which M. Waldman entered shortly after... He began his lecture by a recapitulation of the history of chemistry, and the various improvements made by different men of learning, pronouncing with fervour the names of the most distinguished discoverers. He then took a cursory view of the present state of the science, and explained many of its elementary terms. After having made a few preparatory experiments, he concluded with a panegyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget:-

'The ancient teachers of this science,' said he, 'promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.'

Such were the professor's words- rather let me say such the words of fate, enounced to destroy me. As he went on, I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being: chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein - more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation."

Frankenstein tells Walton how, as a student, he wanted to find a cure for the ills of the human race. He wanted to cure illness and, if possible, find a way to prevent people from dying. To do this he first studied death. He robbed graves and studied the bodies of human beings.

[This is what anatomist were doing at the time]

Chapter 4

"... natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation.

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.

One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries. I revolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of, anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me- a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised, that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret."

He moved on to the effort to recreate life - all this, remember, in the interest of science, and in the interest of improving the human condition. By reason and science he wants to remove suffering from our world.

But when he succeeds in creating another human being - the monster - it is ugly. He had tried to make it beautiful, but, he could not work finely enough. So the creature is a monster.

Frankenstein rejects his creation. He leaves it to fend for itself in the world. [This might be an analogy for scientists washing their hands of the consequences of their science].

The monster is basically good, kind and compassionate. It is the way that he is treated that makes him evil.

The monster lives, for a while, in the outhouse of a cottage occupied by a blind man and his sighted children. Listening through a hole in the wall he hears the children learning about the history of civilization. Its rather like overhearing a seminar. In this way the monster becomes educated without anyone realising that he is around.

Chapter 13

"While I improved in speech, I also learned the science of letters as it was taught to the stranger, and this opened before me a wide field for wonder and delight."

  "The book from which Felix instructed Safie was Volney's Ruin of Empires. I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations. He had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of the Eastern authors. Through this work I obtained a cursory knowledge of history and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth." click for Volney reprint

"I heard of the slothful Asiatics, of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians, of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans -- of their subsequent degenerating -- of the decline of that mighty empire, of chivalry, Christianity, and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.

"These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.

"Every conversation of the cottagers now opened new wonders to me. While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood.

"The words induced me to turn towards myself. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?

"I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!

"Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling, but I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death -- a state which I feared yet did not understand. I admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them, except through means which I obtained by stealth, when I was unseen and unknown, and which rather increased than satisfied the desire I had of becoming one among my fellows. The gentle words of Agatha and the animated smiles of the charming Arabian were not for me. The mild exhortations of the old man and the lively conversation of the loved Felix were not for me. Miserable, unhappy wretch!

"Other lessons were impressed upon me even more deeply. I heard of the difference of sexes, and the birth and growth of children, how the father doted on the smiles of the infant, and the lively sallies of the older child, how all the life and cares of the mother were wrapped up in the precious charge, how the mind of youth expanded and gained knowledge, of brother, sister, and all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds.

"But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing. From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans.

"I will soon explain to what these feelings tended, but allow me now to return to the cottagers, whose story excited in me such various feelings of indignation, delight, and wonder, but which all terminated in additional love and reverence for my protectors (for so I loved, in an innocent, half- painful self-deceit, to call them)."

Everything might have been alright if the monster had not felt lonely. He goes in to see the blind man, who is kind to him. But when the sighted son comes in, he is horrified by the monster and attacks him. The monster flees.

As he learns that he is an outcast in the world, the monster comes to hate his creator. He seeks out people that Frankenstein loves - and kills them.

The first victim is his young brother, William.

Eventually Frankenstein seeks out the monster and pleads with him to stop the killing. The monster is grief stricken, and explains to Frankenstein that the cause of his hatred is that Frankenstein has created him without any companions. He is alone in the world. Make me a female monster as my companion and I will leave the human race alone and live with her.

This Frankenstein begins to do. But as his work is nearing completion he recalls in horror at the thought of the monsters breeding. He does not want to be responsible for creating a race of monsters. He destroys the female.

The male monster is so filled with hatred at what Frankenstein has done, that he kills his best friend, and then Frankenstein's bride, on the night of their wedding.

That is where the chase begins.


The story finishes with Frankenstein dying, the monster telling Walton the story from his point of view, the monster going off to kill himself, and Walton returning home.

Death and life:

Davy, in his 1802 article discusses investigation into the nature of life and writes:

"..the study of the simple and unvarying agencies of dead matter ought surely to precede investigations concerning the mysterious and complicate powers of life."

Frankenstein tells Walton that:

"To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death."

He does so in a gruesome way by examining the remains of dead people which he steals from graves. But this was not as bizarre then as it sounds today. In the early nineteenth century anatomy schools were supplied with corpses by "resurrectionists": people who stole bodies from graves.

The imagery of the frontispiece of Frankenstein in 1818 combines Hebrew and Greek creation stories. The monster is identified with Adam, the first human of the book of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures. But Mary Shelley plays also with her mother's imagery of humans as Prometheus stealing fire by divine intent. So Frankenstein the scientist and his creation are both Adam and both Prometheus.

Mary Wollstonecraft having died as a result of Mary Shelley's birth, the younger Mary only know her mother through her books and other people's memories. Shelley's first book: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus develops her mother's interest in the progress of reason in the world, but for Mary Shelley there is a dark underside to that progress. Her attention was fixed, not on political progress, but on the progress of science, geography and industry, and the future she foresaw could only be expressed as a novel of science fiction horror.

Whilst the mother had visions of perfection awaiting as God's final reward for human effort, failure and achievment, the daughter's vision is of a creator whose box of delights unloads a plethora of evil.

Prometheus and Pandora

Prometheus, whose name means "forethought", was a descendent of the Greek Gods. He defied the super-god Zeus by stealing fire from heaven and teaching mortals all the useful arts. Zeus was angry, and as a punishment he created the first woman on earth: Pandora. By her charms and beauty she was to bring misery on the human race. She was given a box which, when she opened it, let loose every human ill: leaving only hope to mankind. Prometheus was bound to a mountain rock where by day an eagle consumed his liver which was then restored at night. Eventually, however, Zeus allowed his son Hercules to destroy the eagle and release Prometheus from eternal torment.

Mary Wollstonecraft's version:

" Such indeed has been the wretchedness that has flowed from hereditary honours, riches, and monarchy, that men .. have almost uttered blasphemy in order to justify the dispensations of Providence. Man has been held out as independent of His power who made him, or as a lawless planet darting from its orbit to steal the celestial fire of reason; and the vengeance of Heaven, lurking in the subtile flame, like Pandora's pent-up mischiefs, sufficiently punished his temerity, by introducing evil into the world. "

But, she says, it is not reason, but "The pestiferous purple which renders the progress of civilization a curse." And "the nature of the poison points out the antidote": In a world of equality we will be able to "contemplate the perfection of man in the establishment of true civilization".


The Last Man - 1826

the last man - or the decomposition of society? Mary Shelley's The Last Man examines society through its decomposition. It is like a state of nature theory in reverse - Starting with an apparently healthy society and seeing how it breaks down.

I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole; and yet, when balanced in the scale of mental power, far outweighed countries of larger extent and more numerous population. So true it is, that man's mind alone was the creator of all that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first minister. England, seated far north in the turbid sea, now visits my dreams in the semblance of a vast and well-manned ship, which mastered the winds and rode proudly over the waves. In my boyish days she was the universe to me.


[My father] Ashamed to apply again to the king, he turned his back upon London, its false delights and clinging miseries; and, with poverty for his sole companion, buried himself in solitude among the hills and lakes of Cumberland.


my father, forgotten, could not forget. He repined for the loss of what was more necessary to him than air or food--the excitements of pleasure, the admiration of the noble, the luxurious and polished living of the great. A nervous fever was the consequence; during which he was nursed by the daughter of a poor cottager, under whose roof he lodged. She was lovely, gentle, and, above all, kind to him; nor can it afford astonishment, that the late idol of high-bred beauty should, even in a fallen state, appear a being of an elevated and wondrous nature to the lowly cottage-girl. The attachment between them led to the ill-fated marriage, of which I was the offspring.


My first real knowledge of myself was as an unprotected orphan among the valleys and fells of Cumberland. I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain. All shepherd-boys alike, while our flocks were spread over the pastures, we schemed and executed many a mischievous prank, which drew on us the anger and revenge of the rustics. I was the leader and protector of my comrades, and as I became distinguished among them, their misdeeds were usually visited upon me. But while I endured punishment and pain in their defence with the spirit of an hero, I claimed as my reward their praise and obedience.

In such a school my disposition became rugged, but firm. The appetite for admiration and small capacity for self-controul which I inherited from my father, nursed by adversity, made me daring and reckless. I was rough as the elements, and unlearned as the animals I tended. I often compared myself to them, and finding that my chief superiority consisted in power, I soon persuaded myself that it was in power only that I was inferior to the chiefest potentates of the earth. Thus untaught in refined philosophy, and pursued by a restless feeling of degradation from my true station in society, I wandered among the hills of civilized England as uncouth a savage as the wolf-bred founder of old Rome. I owned but one law, it was that of the strongest, and my greatest deed of virtue was never to submit.

Yet let me a little retract from this sentence I have passed on myself. My mother, when dying, had, in addition to her other half-forgotten and misapplied lessons, committed, with solemn exhortation, her other child to my fraternal guardianship; and this one duty I performed to the best of my ability, with all the zeal and affection of which my nature was capable. My sister was three years younger than myself; I had nursed her as an infant, and when the difference of our sexes, by giving us various occupations, in a great measure divided us, yet she continued to be the object of my careful love. Orphans, in the fullest sense of the term, we were poorest among the poor, and despised among the unhonoured. If my daring and courage obtained for me a kind of respectful aversion, her youth and sex, since they did not excite tenderness, by proving her to be weak, were the causes of numberless mortifications to her; and her own disposition was not so constituted as to diminish the evil effects of her lowly station.

She was a singular being, and, like me, inherited much of the peculiar disposition of our father. Her countenance was all expression; her eyes were not dark, but impenetrably deep; you seemed to discover space after space in their intellectual glance, and to feel that the soul which was their soul, comprehended an universe of thought in its ken. She was pale and fair, and her golden hair clustered on her temples, contrasting its rich hue with the living marble beneath. Her coarse peasant-dress, little consonant apparently with the refinement of feeling which her face expressed, yet in a strange manner accorded with it. She was like one of Guido's saints, with heaven in her heart and in her look, so that when you saw her you only thought of that within, and costume and even feature were secondary to the mind that beamed in her countenance.

Yet though lovely and full of noble feeling, my poor Perdita (for this was the fanciful name my sister had received from her dying parent), was not altogether saintly in her disposition. Her manners were cold and repulsive. If she had been nurtured by those who had regarded her with affection, she might have been different; but unloved and neglected, she repaid want of kindness with distrust and silence. She was submissive to those who held authority over her, but a perpetual cloud dwelt on her brow; she looked as if she expected enmity from every one who approached her, and her actions were instigated by the same feeling. All the time she could command she spent in solitude. She would ramble to the most unfrequented places, and scale dangerous heights, that in those unvisited spots she might wrap herself in loneliness. Often she passed whole hours walking up and down the paths of the woods; she wove garlands of flowers and ivy, or watched the flickering of the shadows and glancing of the leaves; sometimes she sat beside a stream, and as her thoughts paused, threw flowers or pebbles into the waters, watching how those swam and these sank; or she would set afloat boats formed of bark of trees or leaves, with a feather for a sail, and intensely watch the navigation of her craft among the rapids and shallows of the brook. Meanwhile her active fancy wove a thousand combinations; she dreamt "of moving accidents by flood and field"--she lost herself delightedly in these self-created wanderings, and returned with unwilling spirit to the dull detail of common life.

Poverty was the cloud that veiled her excellencies, and all that was good in her seemed about to perish from want of the genial dew of affection. She had not even the same advantage as I in the recollection of her parents; she clung to me, her brother, as her only friend, but her alliance with me completed the distaste that her protectors felt for her; and every error was magnified by them into crimes. If she had been bred in that sphere of life to which by inheritance the delicate framework of her mind and person was adapted, she would have been the object almost of adoration, for her virtues were as eminent as her defects. All the genius that ennobled the blood of her father illustrated hers; a generous tide flowed in her veins; artifice, envy, or meanness, were at the antipodes of her nature; her countenance, when enlightened by amiable feeling, might have belonged to a queen of nations; her eyes were bright; her look fearless.

Although by our situation and dispositions we were almost equally cut off from the usual forms of social intercourse, we formed a strong contrast to each other. I always required the stimulants of companionship and applause. Perdita was all-sufficient to herself. Notwithstanding my lawless habits, my disposition was sociable, hers recluse. My life was spent among tangible realities, hers was a dream. I might be said even to love my enemies, since by exciting me they in a sort bestowed happiness upon me; Perdita almost disliked her friends, for they interfered with her visionary moods. All my feelings, even of exultation and triumph, were changed to bitterness, if unparticipated; Perdita, even in joy, fled to loneliness, and could go on from day to day, neither expressing her emotions, nor seeking a fellow-feeling in another mind. Nay, she could love and dwell with tenderness on the look and voice of her friend, while her demeanour expressed the coldest reserve. A sensation with her became a sentiment, and she never spoke until she had mingled her perceptions of outward objects with others which were the native growth of her own mind. She was like a fruitful soil that imbibed the airs and dews of heaven, and gave them forth again to light in loveliest forms of fruits and flowers; but then she was often dark and rugged as that soil, raked up, and new sown with unseen seed.


I lived far from the busy haunts of men, and the rumour of wars or political changes came worn to a mere sound, to our mountain abodes. England had been the scene of momentous struggles, during my early boyhood. In the year 2073, the last of its kings, the ancient friend of my father, had abdicated in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted. Large estates were secured to the dethroned monarch and his family; he received the title of Earl of Windsor, and Windsor Castle, an ancient royalty, with its wide demesnes were a part of his allotted wealth. He died soon after, leaving two children, a son and a daughter.


Hear you not the rushing sound of the coming tempest? Do you not behold the clouds open, and destruction lurid and dire pour down on the blasted earth? See you not the thunderbolt fall, and are deafened by the shout of heaven that follows its descent? Feel you not the earth quake and open with agonizing groans, while the air is pregnant with shrieks and wailings,--all announcing the last days of man?

No! none of these things accompanied our fall! The balmy air of spring, breathed from nature's ambrosial home, invested the lovely earth, which wakened as a young mother about to lead forth in pride her beauteous offspring to meet their sire who had been long absent. The buds decked the trees, the flowers adorned the land: the dark branches, swollen with seasonable juices, expanded into leaves, and the variegated foliage of spring, bending and singing in the breeze, rejoiced in the genial warmth of the unclouded empyrean: the brooks flowed murmuring, the sea was waveless, and the promontories that over-hung it were reflected in the placid waters; birds awoke in the woods, while abundant food for man and beast sprung up from the dark ground. Where was pain and evil? Not in the calm air or weltering ocean; not in the woods or fertile fields, nor among the birds that made the woods resonant with song, nor the animals that in the midst of plenty basked in the sunshine. Our enemy, like the Calamity of Homer, trod our hearts, and no sound was echoed from her steps--

"With ills the land is rife, with ills the sea,
Diseases haunt our frail humanity,
Through noon, through night, on casual wing they glide,
Silent,--a voice the power all-wise denied."
[Elton's translation of Hesiod]

Once man was a favourite of the Creator, as the royal psalmist sang,

"God had made him a little lower than the angels, and had crowned him with glory and honour. God made him to have dominion over the works of his hands, and put all things under his feet."

Once it was so; now is man lord of the creation? Look at him--ha! I see plague! She has invested his form, is incarnate in his flesh, has entwined herself with his being, and blinds his heaven-seeking eyes. Lie down, O man, on the flower-strown earth; give up all claim to your inheritance, all you can ever possess of it is the small cell which the dead require.

Plague is the companion of spring, of sunshine, and plenty. We no longer struggle with her. We have forgotten what we did when she was not. Of old navies used to stem the giant ocean-waves betwixt Indus and the Pole for slight articles of luxury. Men made perilous journies to possess themselves of earth's splendid trifles, gems and gold. Human labour was wasted--human life set at nought. Now life is all that we covet; that this automaton of flesh should, with joints and springs in order, perform its functions, that this dwelling of the soul should be capable of containing its dweller. Our minds, late spread abroad through countless spheres and endless combinations of thought, now retrenched themselves behind this wall of flesh, eager to preserve its well-being only. We were surely sufficiently degraded.

At first the increase of sickness in spring brought increase of toil to such of us, who, as yet spared to life, bestowed our time and thoughts on our fellow creatures. We nerved ourselves to the task: "in the midst of despair we performed the tasks of hope." We went out with the resolution of disputing with our foe. We aided the sick, and comforted the sorrowing; turning from the multitudinous dead to the rare survivors, with an energy of desire that bore the resemblance of power, we bade them--live. Plague sat paramount the while, and laughed us to scorn.

Have any of you, my readers, observed the ruins of an anthill immediately after its destruction? At first it appears entirely deserted of its former inhabitants; in a little time you see an ant struggling through the upturned mould; they reappear by twos and threes, running hither and thither in search of their lost companions. Such were we upon earth, wondering aghast at the effects of pestilence. Our empty habitations remained, but the dwellers were gathered to the shades of the tomb.

As the rules of order and pressure of laws were lost, some began with hesitation and wonder to transgress the accustomed uses of society. Palaces were deserted, and the poor man dared at length, unreproved, intrude into the splendid apartments, whose very furniture and decorations were an unknown world to him. It was found, that, though at first the stop put to to all circulation of property, had reduced those before supported by the factitious wants of society to sudden and hideous poverty, yet when the boundaries of private possession were thrown down, the products of human labour at present existing were more, far more, than the thinned generation could possibly consume. To some among the poor this was matter of exultation. We were all equal now; magnificent dwellings, luxurious carpets, and beds of down, were afforded to all. Carriages and horses, gardens, pictures, statues, and princely libraries, there were enough of these even to superfluity; and there was nothing to prevent each from assuming possession of his share. We were all equal now; but near at hand was an equality still more levelling, a state where beauty and strength, and wisdom, would be as vain as riches and birth. The grave yawned beneath us all, and its prospect prevented any of us from enjoying the ease and plenty which in so awful a manner was presented to us.

© Andrew Roberts 25.10.1990 -

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