Victor Frankenstein's Relationship with Science

Is Victor Frankenstein an exaggeration of the worst tendencies of science?

Is he an example of the misrepresentation of scientists?

Mary Shelley created the character of Victor Frankenstein through her experiences with modern science. A woman familiar with contemporary science who might have read popular science texts or even attended lectures, she used her knowledge to create a character who, while pushing the boundaries of possibility, could potentially be a real person. Victor's task of bringing life to a human corpse using electricity was not completely implausible.
From a young age, Victor was fascinated by science and was influenced by alchemy and what was known as the "old science." Authors such as Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus represented Victor's perceptions of science especially in regards to the Renaissance and Middle Ages.

When Victor first saw an oak tree struck by lightning, he began to take a different outlook of the studies of science. A visit from a natural philosopher spurred Victor to delve into the practices of the "new" science of electricity and galvanism.

After studying at the University of Ingolstadt as a student of chemistry, Victor went on to perform his own projects from the knowledge he received: the secret of life. In particular, he used his talent to create his creation of life from death - The monster.

Victor did intense research in trying to create his new life form. He even visited cemeteries late at night to gather body parts to aid in the construction of his creation.

This is the point at which Mary Shelley begins to portray Victor in a stereotypical manner. She plays off the notion that scientists were not only loners, but also mad and unstable in the mind. She delves into Victor's obsessive and compulsive nature to complete his work at any cost.

Shelley intends for the reader to begin to form negative opinions regarding Victor and his experiments as well as his own mental capacity.This shift in opinion allows Shelley to further manipulate the character of Victor Frankenstein as he transitions from a healthy and happy family man to an obsessed and sickly man who separates himself from his family.

De Monstro Nato Lutetiae Anno Domini, 1605
National Library of Medicine Collection

She also portrayed him as an arrogant, unstable man dabbling with something that was dangerous and unknown. She showed his moodiness, his uncertainty and his selfishness. But, she presented him as educated man doing cutting edge medical work that could change the world as well. Granted, many of his methods were unorthodox; as were many practices of that time, but his work could potentially be earth shattering.

Victor Frankenstein was, in some ways, reflective of the consistently growing and changing field of medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was interested in pursuing the boundaries between life and death. He felt that his work could pave the way for even greater practices of medicine and solve many of the world's problems.

But, in the end, he was not successful. Despite the fact that he created life from death, his methods and intentions were not pure and just. His work ends up not being done for a greater good. Instead his personal wants and needs flood his experimentation.

One could argue that Victor was destined for failure because of his unorthodox methods of practice, but most would agree that Victor had not fully researched and examined all the aspects of his work. He did not take careful consideration as to the repercussions of success, should he achieve it. Perhaps the story of Frankenstein can serve as a lesson, even today, regarding just how science and medicine can affect an individual and their work.

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Copyright 2002: History 257 - Mount Holyoke College
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