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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Higher Education

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Unit 1: The Natural Sciences and Mary Shelley's Milieu


Natural philosophers, wrote Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, “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." Mary Shelley drew on her knowledge of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century developments in chemistry, the physical sciences, and medicine to create the scientific milieu in which the young Victor Frankenstein creates a living being.

Key Concepts:

  1. Developments in medicine and the sciences of life raised questions about the nature of life itself, and challenged the understanding of suspended animation, unconsciousness, and death. The possibility that human beings could assume the power of re-animating those individuals once thought lost to life inspired hope and caution.
  2. The subtitle of Shelley’s novel, “the Modern Prometheus,” reflected her interest in the mythic figure Prometheus, who shared the divine knowledge of fire with human beings. Together with a circle of writers, poets, and philosophers who shared her enthusiasm for the Promethean promise of knowledge, Shelley looked forward to the potential of human mastery over death and disease.
  3. Shelley’s novel examines the issues posed by human control of the natural world and the possibility that these powers will not be used responsibly.


Blundell, James. “Some account of a Case of Obstinate Vomiting, in which an attempt was made to prolong Life by the Injection of Blood into the Veins.” Medical Chirurgical Transactions 10 (Part 2, 1819): 296–311. Available at (accessed on 10/29/2010)

Hunter, John. “Proposals for the Recovery of People Apparently Drowned.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 66 (1776): 412-425.

Williams, Carolyn D. “‘Inhumanly brought back to life and misery’: Mary Wollstonecraft, Frankenstein, and the Royal Humane Society.” Women's Writing, the Elizabethan to Victorian Period. 8, no. 2 (2001): 213-234.

Additional Readings:

Knellwolf, Christa and Jane Goodall, eds. Frankenstein's Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 1780-1830. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

Pelis, Kim. “Transfusion, with teeth.” In Manifesting Medicine: Bodies and Machines. Edited by Robert Bud, Bernard Finn, and Helmuth Trischler. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999, 1-29.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Visual Resources:

Smirke, Robert. Young Man Lifted from a River, Apparently Drowned, oil on canvas, c. 1787 (Government Art Collection). (accessed on 10/29/2010)

___. Resuscitation by Dr. Hawes of Man Believed Drowned, oil on canvas, c. 1787 (Government Art Collection). Available online at (accessed on 10/29/2010)

A black and white illustration of galvanism experimentations. There are six figures that depict different ways to stimulate human body with electricity or its circuit. Figures 1 and 2 show one or two experimenters touch arm or foot muscles or nerve systems with an apparatus. Figures 3 through 6, show severed heads or a whole boy connected to a circuit including a small cylindrical apparatus.

Aldini, Giovanni. Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme; avec une série d'expériences faites en présence des commissaires de l'Institut national de France, et en divers amphithéatres anatomiques de Londres. Vol. 1, plate 4. Paris, Fournier, 1804.

Blundell's Gravitator. This is a black and white illustration of a man standing by a bed with a sick woman. The man's right arm is extended over the bed and shows an incision where his blood pours out and down to a funnel-topped contraption that is connected to the sick woman’s left arm to deliver the man’s blood into the sick woman. Reproduction of an illustration from The Lancet, II (June 13, 1828): 321. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine Collection.

Blundell's Gravitator. Reproduction of an illustration from The Lancet, II (June 13, 1828): 321. (Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine Collection).

Discussion Questions:

  1. What kinds of scientific developments informed the hope of re-animating those unconscious, drowned, and apparently dead?
  2. Shelley’s Frankenstein conducts his researches in secrecy. What is the problem, if any, with “secret science”?
  3. Why would the ability to restore the apparently dead to life be a source of concern for the people in Mary Shelley’s day? In March 1815, Mary Shelley dreamed that her dead infant daughter was restored to life by warming near a fire and vigorously rubbing her chest and back. She knew that her own mother had been “inhumanly” restored to life. How would these events have influenced Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein?