Frankenstein

Annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds.

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Co-Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University
Lincoln Chair in Ethics, Arizona State University
Founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU
Public Engagement Strategist for the Center for Science & the Imagination
Editor and program manager at the Center for Science & the Imagination
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New Discussion on Jun 15
Ken Denney
KD
See what she did there?
Book AnnotationInfluences & AdaptationsScience
Robert Oppenheimer
RO
Here, Mary plays with archetypes of scientists and poets, scrambling references and blurring the lines between these pursuits. For example, Walton is an amateur poet on a scientific voyage, while Victor was Percy Shelley’s pen name in his first published poetry. Mary’s scientists and poets share a love of nature, though they express it in different ways—one theorizes about truth, the other rhapsodizes about beauty. While both require a passionate, curious mind observing nature, the scientist tries to understand how it works and the poet tries to communicate how it feels.Perhaps Mary used these archetypes to represent the ironies of the imagination. We know Mary’s reading list included Francis Bacon, who wrote in his Novum Organum (1620), “The present discoveries in science … lie immediately beneath the surface of common notions. It is necessary, however, to penetrate the more secret and remote parts of nature.” The imagination produces tantalizing false meanings and delusions, but at the same time, enormous feats of imagination are required to think outside existing belief systems. Mary would also have read and reviewed the poems Percy wrote during the European tour when she conceived Frankenstein, including “Mont Blanc,” where he writes, “What were thou [Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps], and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?” In “Mont Blanc,” Percy describes how human fancies lack the reality and beauty of nature, yet in the same poem he argues that nature is meaningless without the human imagination. Our relationship with our imagination is one of many metaphors in the relationship between Victor and his creation—we create the thing that enslaves us and drives us onward.
Book AnnotationMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
Emily Zarka
EZ
The gratitude expressed by Victor here reflects Mary’s own respect and appreciation for her father William Godwin’s dedication to her education. As an author, political journalist, and reformer, it comes as little surprise that Godwin supported Mary’s informal education, encouraging the development of her reading and writing abilities and paying for a governess. He also frequently hosted noted scholars and writers of the period in their home, and served as her tutor for a variety of subjects. Godwin’s devotion to fostering Mary’s schooling was also influenced by the thinking of his late wife, Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Although Godwin admitted he was not following the philosophies presented in Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the attention Mary’s schooling received was, like her mother’s ideas about women’s education, radical for the time. Godwin withdrew his support when Mary eloped with Percy Shelley in 1814. However, Mary’s decision to dedicate the culmination of her youthful intellectual prowess, Frankenstein, to her father significantly improved their relationship. The modern-day inclusion of Frankenstein in countless curriculums (the book is the most-assigned novel in university courses, according to the Open Syllabus Project) continues the family’s educational legacy.
Community Discussion
Graham Durfee
GD
Frankenstein’s fear of innovation and progress is reactionary to the era when it was written. In 1818, the Industrial Revolution was just beginning to make headway, and the counterculture of the romantic movement came close behind. In a world where factory bosses ignored ethical considerations in the name of progress, it makes sense that freethinkers like Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley would look to nature as a way to escape. Romantics saw a gray and lifeless world around them and looked to return to what they saw as the more innocent time of the medieval era.  But often, this important questioning was taken too far. This is especially clear in Frankenstein. Victor’s regret causes him to attempt to turn Robert Walton away completely from his scientific endeavors. While it is one thing to say “perhaps we should consider what happens when we create an entirely new life form”, it is another to say “you must abandon all quests for scientific knowledge”. This crosses the line from sensible caution into illogical paranoia. Does this sound familiar to you? In our modern era, outside voices question scientific advancements from their conception. This actually can help protect the scientists from putting themselves in regrettable situations when it’s too late. However, even after these questions have been answered some parties will continue to fight against an invention or legal ruling. Without any hope of being anything other than unproductive, these parties stand in the way of progress simply because they don’t like it.
Book AnnotationMary ShelleyPhilosophy & PoliticsTechnology
Damien Williams
As Charles E. Robinson notes, in his introduction, Mary’s choice of the word “dæmon” throughout the text is deliberate, and not necessarily intended to mean “an evil beast.” Though this spelling seems archaic, if we follow its transformation over time, we can better understand how the term signals Mary’s understanding of the creature, and we can make connections to our modern-day technology, including computing. The Greek word “Δαιμον,” or “Daimon,” meant “divine spirit,” “soul,” or any supernatural entity other than a god. In his Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle used the word “Ευδαιμονια” or “eu-daimonia” to mean “a good spirit,” or a human soul in harmony as a result of cultivating a virtuous character. When the Romans came, the word “δαιμον” became “dæmon,” which was later simplified to “demon” as a result of the Neo-Latin turn beginning in the fourteenth century. But religion and culture changed along with language. As Christianity spread and the Roman Empire gave rise to the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the metaphysical implications of words were altered. “Demons” could no longer be neutral spirits. There was good, and there was Evil, and that meant that anything not sent by God must be evil. A Greek word for “Spirits From God” had already been adopted (“Αγγελος” or “Angel”), so Demons became Evil Spirits. As Mary was versed in Latin and Greek language and history as well as Christian traditions, it is likely that she would have known most of this, leading to her intentional usage of the term. She wanted her readers to understand the otherworldly awe the creature is meant to inspire—a being made to be like us, but also powerful and alien.We still use the word “dæmon” today: It is the name we give to any automated process running in the background of a computer system. If you’ve ever received a bounced email, then you’ve encountered the Mailer-Daemon. Though the name comes the Maxwell’s demon thought experiment, in which a small spirit sits in the background of the universe, computer Dæmons are born of an operation whereby a “parent” process splits off a “child” and then “orphans” it, to complete its operations in the background of the world. As we think about animating spirits, orphaned children, and computer programs, it might behoove us to think more carefully about how we engage with the digital offspring we are generating today. Though it may possess a powerful and even unpredictable nature, a dæmon is not necessarily evil; it merely requires care and cultivation to understand.
Book AnnotationHealth & MedicinePhilosophy & Politics
Emily Zarka
EZ
Captain Walton’s method of resuscitating Victor would have been familiar to Mary’s readers. In 1774, the Royal Humane Society of Britain was formed under the original title “The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned.” This group developed techniques to aid people in restoring consciousness to those they believed to be victims of sudden death by drowning, stroke, convulsions, suffocation “by noxious vapors,” or strangulation. The recommended course of treatment was best performed by at least three individuals. In addition to drying and warming the body, one person would blow air into the lungs of the victim. Meanwhile, a second attendant would force tobacco smoke into the rectum and a third would vigorously rub the body with a coarse cloth dipped in alcohol or dry salt. If the victim could swallow liquid, it was recommended that a small portion of alcohol should also be administered. The Society offered a payment of two guineas for any person who used their treatment for resuscitation. The amount increased to four guineas if the attempts were successful. These techniques were also promoted as helpful for frozen bodies, and Captain Walton’s treatment of the immobilized Victor suggests that Mary was familiar with the Society’s methods.
Book AnnotationScienceTechnology
Lawrence Dritsas
LD
Exploring ships since the eighteenth century are best viewed as scientific instruments in their own right, similar to the Voyager or Cassini spacecraft today. Ships are a platform for a wide variety of scientific activities, but the science must be done properly. The validity and accuracy of ships’ logs and observations is warranted and sustained by disciplined record-taking and the use of supposedly “objective” instruments of measurement. Telescopes, chronometers, and other instruments gave travel accounts a semblance of credibility that simple narrative prose did not enjoy. Walton’s expedition is further verified as an example of scientific travel through its use of telescopes. (For more information, see Richard Sorrenson’s essay “The ship as a scientific instrument in the eighteenth century.”) Further, the use of telescopes is a great narrative device here, allowing Walton and other members of the crew to observe the creature directly, without threatening him and without endangering themselves. Before we even meet Victor, the creature is an established fact in the story, even though no character has interacted with him. This gives Victor’s revelation of his story especial interest, as we already know the creature has great strength and endurance.
Book AnnotationPhilosophy & Politics
Adam Chodorow
AC
During times of war, British ships were entitled to take enemy vessels, including merchant vessels, as “prizes.” The prizes belonged to the crown, but the captain and crew were awarded some portion of the value of the ship and merchandise as prize-money as a way to create incentives for the taking of such ships. A Prize Court determined whether the ship was properly captured and how much would be distributed and to whom. Payouts depended upon a sailor’s rank and function on the capturing ship. Many a sailor made significant sums in prize-money, but, as sailors are wont to do, many squandered their prizes as quickly as they earned them. Thus, the phrase “spending money like a drunken sailor” contains an implicit reference to prize-money, though it is by no means limited to such funds.
Book AnnotationScience
Robert Oppenheimer
RO
“Keeping” in this passage means perspective. Realistic pictures keep the proper relation of near and distant objects, and of important and unimportant features. For a contemporary source on “keeping” and painting, see William Gilpin’s An essay upon prints (1792).
Book AnnotationScience
Lawrence Dritsas
LD
Mary publishes this fictional account of Arctic exploration in the same year (1818) that saw a British attempt to reach the North Pole and traverse the Northwest Passage that was unsuccessful, but nonetheless rekindled interest in the Arctic (for more on 1818 as a watershed year in Arctic exploration, see Adriana Craciun’s book Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration). In this passage, Walton equates his search for a route to lands near the North Pole with the search for the Northwest Passage, and reveals his inspiration from reading travel accounts, a favorite pastime of Enlightenment scholars. Given her rich education directed by a free-thinking father, William Godwin, Mary was certainly aware of the voyages of James Cook and George Vancouver to the North Pacific in the 1770s and 1780s, and the many reports of whalers in the North Atlantic (whom she has Walton join in his youth). Ice appeared to block any passage to the far North, but hopes remained in the early nineteenth century that a route may yet exist through the uncharted region, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific more directly. Mary might be recalling her own freedom to read about exploration in a well-stocked domestic library when Walton writes, “My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading.”
Book AnnotationScience
Lawrence Dritsas
LD
Here Mary has Walton join an ancient discussion about the mythical land of the far North, possibly inhabited by fantastic Hyberboreans. Since antiquity the far North has been a space to imagine difference, possibility, and horror. Tales of endless days and nights followed the amber trade from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, sparking speculations into what life would be like under the North Star. Mary uses Walton’s fantasies about the far North, at odds with reasoned conclusions, to examine the passions that may lead a person to explore beyond the borders of humanity, and possibly human decency, in the name of science.
Book AnnotationInfluences & AdaptationsMary Shelley
Joey Eschrich
The collection of ghost stories that Mary Shelley and her compatriots read during the rainy, inclement summer of 1816 is Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German stories published in 1812. Learn more about the book and see page images at the British Library, and read an English translation, published in 1820 as Tales of the Dead, at the Internet Archive.
Community Discussion
Jonus Valenzuela
JV
The gothic fiction Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is about Knowledge and reveals that becoming so enthralled in your studies can lead to a loss of ethical thinking and alienation. Letters 1-4 of the book describes Robert Walton, a character who travels to the North Pole to make a scientific discovery. He describes his reasoning for travelling there as this,“I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river.”(Shelley 2). Here Mary Shelley describes to the reader the feelings of Robert and philosophers as they are on the brink of discovery. However, one thing is missing from this text that the reader hasn’t been introduced to as of yet. That thing is the ramifications of studying so deeply into a subject. Robert Walton begins to feel secluded from society and it reflects in his second letter, stating, “I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection.”(Shelley 5). In this the reader begins to discover that even though these philosophers are able to recognize their disconnect from others, they will still go on to fulfill their satisfaction. We are able to observe this even further when Victor Frankenstein describes his state of mind when studying the creation of life at Ingolstadt, he states, “My attention was fixed upon every object insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings.”(Shelley 42). Even though Victor had recognized this, it was only after he had brought his creation to life. This can even be reflected in the industrial revolution and the ramifications it had on the environment. According to History.com, “Coal came into large-scale use during the Industrial Revolution. The resulting smog and soot had serious health impacts on the residents of growing urban centers. In the Great Smog of 1952, pollutants from factories and home fireplaces mixed with air condensation killed at least 4,000 people in London over the course of several days”. However, it is only until recently that we have reflected upon the past and realized the ramifications of our actions, much how Victor has. Whether it be in bringing a creature to life, or the Industrial Revolution, we are able to reflect on our past. However, with new coming innovations we must be careful in not tunneling our vision upon the success of our creations. Humanity, as we develop new innovations, must remain ethical thinkers.
Book AnnotationEquity & InclusionInfluences & AdaptationsMary ShelleyPhilosophy & Politics
Lisa Yaszek
LY
Although Mary claims she is writing a new kind of novel without “prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind,” this passage connects Frankenstein with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a pioneering feminist manifesto by Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. In Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues that women’s unrealistic expectations about marriage and motherhood derive in large part from reading romance novels rather than being allowed to acquire formal educations that promote reason and virtue. Here, Mary takes her mother’s argument in new directions by claiming to have written a novel that provides exactly the kind of intellectual and moral education promoted by her mother and other early feminists.
Community Discussion
C M
CM
As a work of negative romanticism, it is interesting that Shelley’s introduces her work with a connection to the ancestor of Charles Darwin, father of the modern Theory of Evolution. The primitive Theory of Evolution referenced in the Preface fits uniquely into negative or dark romanticism because one element of this style of romanticism is an exploration of whether mankind’s development will ultimately be it’s destruction. The Theory of Evolution and its precursors are grounded in nature and the way it influences the natural development of a species, yet mankind’s recent “evolutions” have been accelerated by technologies. Essentially, humanity began leveraging nature to advance itself during the Industrial Revolutions, developments which negative romanticism is often a reaction. By introducing the idea that Frankenstein is a work of fantasy/fiction, but also not a scientific impossibility, Shelley frames the dilemma as to whether mankind’s technologically-accelerated evolution, a deviation from the course of natural events, will ultimately be self-destructive. This dilemma is likely to play an integral role in the subsequent sections of Shelley’s classic, especially as it pertains to the views of negative romantics.
Community Discussion
abigail galloway
ag
Hi my name’s Abby and I go to newtech. My topic is Ethics, Ethics means Choosing what’s morally right and wrong. In Frankenstein, Victor making the creature was an example of an ethical dilemma. It’s a dilemma because when Victor Frankenstein's creature wanted a companion, victor knew that his creation was violent and hurt people but was considering making another one. He knew that making another one would contradict what he felt and also put himself and others in danger. This is just like robotic surgery. Robotic surgery is computer assisted surgery, it uses robotic systems to help with surgical procedures. Robotic surgery represents an ethical dilemma because some people feel it’s unnatural. and there could be complications during surgery or that the robot could spontaneously malfunction.
Community Discussion
Ashley Lopez
AL
In the book the tematic topic alienations seems to appear throughout the story in many different characters but the character who I felt like experienced alienation the most was the creature. Through the book the creature is sorta just left to himself because of the way he looks.On page 148 the monster states this as he tries to get Victor  to make him a creature that looks just like him so he has someone who he can relate to stating “ I intend to reason. This passion is detrimental to me, for you do not reflect that you are the cause of its excess. If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them a hundred and a hundredfold; for that one creature’s sake I would make piece with the whole kind! But I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realized. What I ask of you is reasonable  and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all that I receive, and it shall content me.”.. This fictional creature  can relate to real life with CRISPR. CRISPR is a system  that genetically modified DNA to the modifers liking. With CRISPR you can have a child with any kind of liking of eye color, hair color and even gender. With sometime children modified by CRISPR could feel as there too “Perfect” compared to other normal human beings just like the creature who felt as if he was too ugly compared to the normal human. Another real life example isDuring the industrial revolution and even now a lot of workers become alienated because of class groups that they were put into According to “Alienation in industrial society , Projects for English language. liceo linguistico vico”  “ This caused a dramatic increase in the population and mass society  was a direct result  of this phenomenon. The French sociologist  Emile  Durkheim  described  it as a mass  of undifferentiated, atomicos  individuals. This loss of  individually  led to widespread alienation, the object of study for a lot of social scientist. The alienation workers is an important aspect  of Marx’s critique  of the capitalist system.”
Book AnnotationPhilosophy & PoliticsScience
Frankenbook Editor
Don’t get me wrong—I am a Loyal Disciple of The Scientific Method—but I’m also a firm believer in the ability of seemingly outlandish ideas to transform a discipline. I have tremendous respect for researchers who are willing to put themselves on the line and push the envelope on topics most of us are too nervous to tackle.Want to learn more about the tensions between lab science and philosophy? Read the complete essay by Ashley Juavinett, postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Book AnnotationInfluences & AdaptationsScience
Frankenbook Editor
“Beyond a general distrust of science ‘creating’ life, Frankenstein seems to inspire a particular suspicion of scientists themselves. Victor Frankenstein is after all the stereotypical mad scientist, creating his own demons, isolated from the society around him. It’s not a stretch, then, for activist organizations to draw on this vision and whip up fears about modern scientists creating toxic food in the interest of Big-Ag. This image of rogue scientists easily bought by industry dollars is often plain wrong though.”Want to learn more about Frankenstein’s legacy around modern science communication in developing nations? Read the complete essay by Devang Mehta, a member of the Plant Biotechnology Group at the Institute for Molecular Plant Biology at ETH Zurich.  
Book AnnotationHealth & MedicinePhilosophy & PoliticsScience
Frankenbook Editor
“Even when it isn’t so straightforward—and actually, especially when it isn’t so straightforward—researchers must grapple with the tension between our curiosity and our duty. We scientists are the part of society entrusted with a great deal of resources and freedom—something that has been so since Mary Shelley described this truth in Frankenstein—in the hopes that our efforts will improve our understanding of the universe. Taking on this trust isn’t a trivial responsibility; sometimes we must make difficult decisions, and sometimes we get those difficult decisions wrong. But then we have to face the consequences and keep pushing towards our ultimate goal.”Want to learn more about the ethics of animal testing in scientific research, and the benefits of avoiding it? Read the complete essay by Danbee Kim, PhD candidate at the International Neuroscience Doctoral Programme, headquartered at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisboa, Portugal.