Student Question

What aspects of Galvanism, Eugenics, the Legend of Prometheus, and Johan Faust might have influenced Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein?

  • Galvanism (see Luigi Galvani)
  • Eugenics (see Sir Francis Galton)
  • The Legend of Prometheus
  • Johan Faust (see Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Mann)

Expert Answers

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Galvanism refers to Galvani's discovery in the 1780s that an electrical charge can cause animal muscle tissue to contract. Galvani theorized from this that some form of electrical impulse could be the basis of life. Shelley read about Galvani's work the summer before writing Frankenstein. While it is not very clear what Victor Frankenstein's "instruments of life" might be, and Frankenstein himself is evasive about the details on purpose, the notion of reanimating dead tissue through electrical means was very much in Shelley's mind.

The term "Eugenics" was not coined in Shelley's lifetime, but Shelley anticipates Galton in her novel. Frankenstein's knowledge makes him a kind of "architect of man," but more directly, Shelley's own experience as the prodigy daughter of illustrious parents and her recent experience as a mother contributed to the themes of reanimation in her book. The monster's coming into self awareness, his rejection by the cottagers because of his deformity, and his subsequent murderous revenge all suggest the dangers of "racial perfection."

The Promethean story is an important gloss on Frankenstein, which is subtitled "the modern Prometheus." Like Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein learns a great secret, and he decides to use this knowledge to bring a new race into being. Also, like Prometheus, this act has unexpected consequences—Frankenstein's revulsion at his work and his dogged pursuit of the monster wherever it might go, for example.

The Faust legend is a story of hubris, in which Faust makes a deal with the devil in which he exchanges his soul for wisdom or, in Marlowe's play, magic powers. Frankenstein is an obvious Faust figure; he sacrifices his humanity in his dogged pursuit of knowledge. His success in creating life (a kind of "magic trick") quickly turns on him, and he suffers the consequences.

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