Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Frankenstein without Electricity: Contextualizing Shelley's Novel

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Frankenstein without Electricity: Contextualizing Shelley's Novel

Article excerpt

It happened, perhaps unfortunately for the inquirers into the knowledge of diseases, that other sciences had received improvement previous to their own; whence, instead of comparing the properties belonging to animated nature with each other, they, idly ingenious, busied themselves in attempting to explain the laws of life by those of mechanism and chemistry; they considered the body as an hydraulic machine, and the fluids as passing through a series of chemical changes, forgetting that animation was its essential characteristic.

--Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia (1)

IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT FRANKENSTEIN IS NOT THE MONSTER, BUT ITS creator; yet the character of Victor has long been secondary to that of the creation. In fact, he has by now largely been replaced, if not in name, then in characterization, by a man more straightforwardly sinister. The scene from James Whale's film is iconic: under a white cover, a lifeless body, then lightning is sucked in through the gothic machine and gives rise to the hulking form of Boris Karloff. Inanimate matter made to move by the power of electricity, a slave to the unscrupulous man of science.

It is less well known, or perhaps just ignored, that in Mary Shelley's novel there is no mention of electricity at the moment of creation. There are "instruments of life" and there is a "spark of being," but no lightning, no Galvanic fluid, and certainly no robotic slave. Nonetheless, scholars assert the electric animation with surprising confidence, seeing no real need to argue the case: "Frankenstein critics generally agree that the battery gives life to the monster," writes Richard C. Sha, and Paul Gilmore adds that Frankenstein is the " [most famous] use of electricity in romantic literature." Peter Vernon states flatly: "Anyone who knows Frankenstein at all will remember how important electricity is." (2) The repetition and circulation of a proposition, of course, does not make it a fact.

The most thorough electric case 1 have seen presented is that by Anne K. Mellor, who states that " [t]o understand the full implications of Frankenstein's transgression, we must recognize that Victor Frankenstein's stolen 'spark of life' is not merely fire; it is also that recently discovered caloric fluid called electricity." (3) There is no question of the quality or breadth of Mellor's historical scholarship when she builds her argument around contextual evidence, citing from the contemporary debate on the connection between electricity and life. But when she turns to the text of the novel itself, instead of demonstrating the presence of electricity, she simply assumes it and bases her interpretation on this assumption. That to me is insufficient: it must be shown that electricity has a real presence at the moment of creation, or at the very least that it can be the answer to a question posed by the text. In this essay, I contend that neither is the case.

The circumstantial evidence on which Mellor builds her case is itself not under dispute. (4) Nor is it in doubt that Mary Shelley knew of the debates on life and electricity at the time she wrote her book. But this in itself does not warrant an electric interpretation, when electricity is all but absent from the book. One could argue that she actively omitted to name the causal agent of the animation of the creature, inviting the reader to fill in the blank. Three things make this interpretative strategy, to my mind, unfeasible. First of all, I am not convinced that this blank would automatically be filled out with electricity. Secondly, the text not only omits to name the agent, but more to the point, it spends very little time omitting it--the text, that is, cannot be said to be beating around the bush on this matter, since it is fully occupied with other things. Thirdly, and this point is in a sense at the heart of this essay, one should be very cautious in speculating about the contents of other people's minds, especially when they are long dead. …

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