Science and Prometheus

Mary's childhood home: link with science

Frankenstein was written at a time of intense debate about science, and, as the visitors to her father's home included some of the leading intellectuals of the day, Mary Shelley was very familiar with the central issues:

  • in a period when the distinctions between the disciplines – science, the arts, politics, philosophy and theology – were less rigid, discussion ranged widely over many topics
  • for many political philosophers, science held the key to social progress
  • poets such as Coleridge considered it important to address scientific issues in their work
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were both deeply interested in science.

During the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley heard and participated in many conversations about science and the principle of life, as well as undertaking her own scientific reading.

Literary background: creation and transgression

The figure of Prometheus (see Literary context: The Prometheus myth) was the subject of a poem published by Byron in 1816, and Percy Shelley was to publish his major work, Prometheus Unbound, in 1820. Prometheus, who was said to have taught humanity many useful skills, was often used as a kind of prototype of the modern scientist:

  • he explored, understood and harnessed the secrets of nature
  • he was also a transgressive figure who defied the authority of the gods by stealing fire from them and bringing it to earth.

These two aspects of the Prometheus story – creation and transgression – complicate the image of the scientist as represented by Victor Frankenstein.

Specific references to scientific matters are discussed at the appropriate points in the Synopses section but three figures, one Italian and two Englishmen, are of particular importance in understanding the scientific context of Frankenstein: Luigi Galvani, Erasmus Darwin and Sir Humphry Davy.

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