Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Paradoxes of “Vitality”

OGAWA, Kimiyo
Associate Professor
English Studies

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), read in the Enlightenment context, has been associated with “Galvanism”, or galvanic electricity, which allegedly replaced the spirit or soul that more traditional thinkers associated with an animating life force. Mary Shelley mentions Erasmus Darwin, the famous physician, natural philosopher and poet, and his experiments on electricity, and also knew the surgeon and theorist of vitality, William Lawrence who was accused of blasphemy and materialism in the course of his disputes with John Abernethy. Given the powerful creation scene, which is heavily inclined towards material science, Shelley’s novel could be looked on as an exemplar of modernity and secularism. However, we should note that Shelley apparently also intended Frankenstein to be a ghost story, as stated in her ‘Introduction’ to the 1831 edition, and that she is also the author of Valperga (1823) and The Last Man (1826) both of which thematise a self-destructive inclination arising from an unknown cause. In Valperga, particularly, Shelley poses moral and religious questions concerning whether the source of one’s character is God or the material organs of the body. It is significant that she knew the works of the famous phrenologist, Johann Spurzheim, since he ascribes the nature of bodily organization to “an all-wise Creator”, while believing that a set of innate, inherited capacities are transmitted in the form of cerebral organs. A careful observation of medical texts reveals that for a majority of contemporary scientists the life-giving ‘substance’ remained obscure, while some (like Coleridge) were happy to allow the suggestion of supernaturalism to haunt the more material precincts of science; in this last respect electricity, or ‘the electrical fluid’, served as a helpfully ambiguous metaphor for the mysterious substance of ‘vitality’. My paper explores the ways in which, in Frankenstein, suggestions of supernatural forces are likewise insinuated alongside the material, scientific energies associated with contemporary life science.

本研究は、平成26年度学術振興会科研費基盤(B)「感受性の〈不〉道徳性と教育 ―イギリス近代文学におけるジェンダー編成の諸相」の成果の一部である。

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