Less Electricity, More Elixir of Life!

A screen capture from the 1910 Edison film Frankenstein, with a cropped picture of the creature from an illustration in the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's classic; framed pictures of Agrippa, Magnus, and Paracelsus; and a Thomas Edison light bulb

All the many Frankenstein movies had left me with the bogus memory that lightning and electrical equipment figured prominently in Mary Shelley’s book. When I recently read Frankenstein again after many years, it surprised me to discover that Shelley barely mentions electricity at all. Victor Frankenstein is vague about the procedure, telling the sea captain who rescued him, “I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret (of creating life); that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. “

While a student, Frankenstein finds fault with his university instructor’s emphasis on modern science, preferring the more ancient works of Heinrich Agrippa (1486 – 1535), Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), and Albertus Magnus (1193/1206 – 1280). Agrippa was a magician, occultist, theologian, and astrologer. While Paracelsus contributed to modern medicine and science, young Frankenstein shows more interest in his writings on alchemy and growing miniature people in jars (more on that later). I really like Magnus for his efforts to reconcile religion and science, to show that one need not contradict the other, and his study of Arab philosophers. He also had an interest in alchemy, especially the Philosopher’s Stone, which could supposedly turn common metals into gold. So all-in-all, Victor Frankenstein was leaning toward some arcane influences.

An IEEE article called Galvani and the Frankenstein Story tells us that, “Rather than dabble in science, Mary Shelley wisely leaves it to the reader to imagine the laboratory in which Frankenstein brings his creature to life. In fact, only two sentences in the entire book allude to lightning and the Galvanism theory.”

Some documentaries theorize that Mary Shelley was influenced by a scientist named Johann Konrad Dippel (1673-1734). Born in Germany in an actual Castle Frankenstein, Dippel  is credited with electrical experiments that lead to the modern day heart defibrillator.  But historians point out that Mary Shelley never mentions Castle Frankenstein in the extensive journal she kept of her travels through Germany, nor do any of her traveling companions refer to it in their letters or other writings.

On the other hand, Dipple was famous during his lifetime, and even though he died before Shelley was born, one must ask: Is easier to believe that Mary Shelley decided to name her fictional scientist “Frankenstein” by coincidence, or because she had heard of Dippel and his connection to Castle Frankenstein?

A brief word about Paracelsus: In the 16th Century, he was a radical hero to young medical students because he called the old, outdated doctors “asses” and scoffed at their practices like bleeding,  which often resulted in death. He pioneered the use of chemical medicines, but he angered the academic world by saying things like, “The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.” The bizarre thing is that, despite his rational outlook, Paracelsus also mixed some highly dubious claims into his writing. He had a recipe for creating a tiny living person, which he called a homunculus. In his 1572 book De Natura Rerum (The Nature of Things), he wrote:

“Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbit . . . for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated . . . at this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but, nevertheless, transparent and without a body. . . if now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for forty weeks. . .in perpetual heat . . . it becomes thencefold a true living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. . . should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and starts to display intelligence.”

Maybe this was a primitive idea of cloning, although Paracelsus’ method seems a bit one-sided, not giving the female egg credit for its far more patient task. This reminds one of the sexual theories in literary analysis regarding the fact that Dr. Frankenstein shut his fiancé out of his life while he was obsessed with his creating a man. I don’t know if Paracelsus had a girlfriend.

Only now have I discovered that the ratio of science to alchemy in Frankenstein may depend on which edition one reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published in 1818. Another edition, edited under the supervision of William Godwin, came out in 1823, and still another version was published in 1831. Crossref-it.info says that for the 1831 edition, “Shelley removed many of the references to new scientific ideas, thus detaching the novel from its original intellectual context and the issues that were being debated both publicly and in the Byron-Shelley circle.”

It is my understanding that the 1831 edition has been the one most commonly reprinted for several decades. I have just discovered that in 1999, Broadview Literary Texts released  Frankenstein: The Original 1818 Text, edited by D. L. McDonald and Kathleen Scherf, which uses the original 1818 version, with details of later revisions in an appendix. Did I read this edition years ago, or the 1831 version? Only one way to find out.



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2 responses to “Less Electricity, More Elixir of Life!

  1. It is rare to find such an intelligent and informed thoughts on Mary Shelley on the web. I am glad to have found your site. Did you know that I am writing a book on her?

  2. Yes, I did, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I also plan to read The Woman Who Named God when I get the chance.

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