Science And Fiction: Penetrating the Recesses of Nature
When reading Mary Shelley’s first novel, Frankenstein, from a standpoint steeped in advanced scientific technology, modern day readers find it easy to scoff at Victor Frankenstein’s ill-advised scheme of reanimation. However, the popular scholarship of Shelley’s time was shamefully contiguous to the grotesque experimentation depicted in her novel; scientists of the day were gripped by a mania for animal electricity and galvanism that bore a striking resemblance to Victor’s “spark of being” (Shelley 56). By the time that Mary Shelley first began her novel in 1816, the western world had already made strides in scientific discovery since the days of alchemic transmutation, but it still had a long way to go in the realms of physiology and ethics of scientific pursuit.
Robinson, Henry R. “A Galvanized Corpse.” Cartoon. Library Of Congress. Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1836. Print.
In her introduction, Shelley muses that the principle of galvanism gives rise to the possibility that parts of a creature may be patched together and “endued with vital warmth” (Shelley 8). The principle is named after Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, who is most famous for his experimentation with stimulating frog legs in a metal circuit and stimulating them into action (Peacay 1). Galvani believed that this contraction of muscles was an inherent property of tissue, an electrical fluid that was the element of animation or vitality.
Galvani’s research was continued and critically escalated by his physicist nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who was a household name at Frankenstein’s conception. Aldini’s ambitions far exceeded his uncle’s thrashing amphibian legs. Aldini never claimed or denied an ability to revive dead tissue; he merely immersed himself with his electrical experiments—and cherished the hysteria of crowds that sincerely believed that he could raise corpses from the dead. The physicist especially enjoyed public displays that “penetrate into the recesses of nature” and surely rival the combined raptures of Victor Frankenstein in his most enlightened stages of discovery (Shelley 47). In one of his most macabre demonstrations, Aldini used a human corpse. At the Royal College of Surgery, the lifeless body of executed murderer, George Forster, was arranged next to an enormous battery and several conducting rods and before a crowd of doctors and curious onlookers (Pilkington 1). The rods were placed in various places on the body, each eliciting an profound reaction. When placed on the face, Forster’s jaw was rumored to tremble and the left eye snapped open. However the climax of the demonstration occurred when Aldini probed Forster’s rectum, which evoked a terrifyingly lifelike reaction of the body arching its back, kicking out its legs, and throwing a clenched fist in the air (Pilkington 1).
Many have speculated that Mary Shelley’s character of Victor Frankenstein could be loosely based on the real-life scientist Giovanni Aldini. Both figures share an unsettling drive for scientific discovery, but Frankenstien, who successfully reanimated a body, may have faced a harsher consequence for his experimentation. Aldini, who violated a human body in front of a crowd, was showered with all manner of prestigious awards for his discoveries of rudimentary electrophysiology, whereas Frankenstein is blighted with the mortality of his loved ones and ultimately, himself. Shelley’s novel has much to say for considering ethics before experimentation.
Peacay, Paul. “Galvanizing Aldini.” Weblog post. BiblioOdyssey. N.p., 3 Feb. 2007. Web. 16
Pilkington, Mark. “Sparks of Life.” The Guardian. N.p., 6 Oct. 2004. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Maurice Hindle. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus.
London: Penguin, 2003. Print.