The Study of Anatomy within Frankenstein

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Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein” robbing a grave.

Through the novel of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, we learn that the process that Victor goes through to get the body of his creation is almost over looked, rather not explained. The point being over looked however is that Victor probably stole the body from a graveyard considering the limitations and social norms of the time on the dissection and study of the human body. Shelley uses the means of getting these bodies to show reflection of social norms through the use of actions of Victor, the Monster, and other plot points

In the time of Shelley, body snatching and grave robbing had been, and continued to be a huge problem. With the growing demand of colleges to have more bodies to dissect, the the illegal trade of grave robbing was very lucrative. Though after Shelley’s novel was published, in 1826 it is said that London colleges needed at least four hundred and fifty to five hundred bodies per year. While Victor was living and studying in Germany, the problems of grave robbing extended to that of the United States and the rest of Europe as well. Even more, it could be said that with this grave robbing being a huge problem in England. Shelley is trying shed more light on the subject that it is not only limited to their little island of Britain.

The dissections themselves took place in class rooms, or as Victor says “the dissecting room.” We know that the dissections themselves are not bad as the happen in the novel as well as the real world. What Victor does however is taboo, considering that he has a body all to himself and more clearly is hiding the body from everyone else, we can suspect that Victor obtained the body on illegal grounds.

The fact of the matter is that grave robbing was not the only way to retrieve these corpses, murder was also used. Even though murder was not widespread in order to retrieve these corpses, it was not unheard of. I don’t assume that Victor himself killed the man of the creation because Victor himself states that he thought a lot of churchyards, and that the bodies there had only become “food for the worm.” However I do believe that the monster’s actions tread closely with these acts of murder. Shadowing that of how some of these bodies are received, one of the first things that the Monster does is kill Victor’s little brother William. This mimics that of doctors taking away the corpses of families loved ones. Which another way of receiving these corpses was that any criminal that was hung could be dissected by these colleges in England(in order fill the growing demand.) The main problems with these hangings is that the families of the deceased, often fought for the bodies of their loved ones. In a way I see this as karma coming back to Victor and in the real world a criticism of doctors at the time. By the Monster killing William we see this karma come into effect, as well as the Monster taking away the rest of Victor’s loved ones. Other than this the irony of the matter is that Justine is hanged for the murder of William, which I can’t help but see as an intentional criticism used by Shelley.

Specimens used in the dissections were fairly specific, being that their were no children under the age of seven, pregnant women, the mentally ill, and people with certain infectious diseases. However one of the more specific criteria would be that the specimens should be poor. As we’ve learned through out the course of  British Literature there is a huge dichotomy between that of the poor and the rich, not only in literature but in the real world as well. This contrast between poor and rich is shown through the use of the Monster and the first people that he meets. We can see that the monster has probably come from illegal grave robbing, possibly hung, but there is a high chance that he might have been poor as well. In another intentional ploy used by Shelley we can assume that this is a way to show the monster getting back to his roots and criticizing the rich and the colleges for using the poor . More so the importance of the first person that the monster actually talks to is poor, though he is blind and the other peasants chase him off, it still shows the acceptance of the man and the ties he makes with the poor. Through learning from them. In contrast the second person he talks to is rich William, who criticizes the Monster and judges him. Victor’s family being rich and the peasants  that the monster learns from, brings out the differences between the monster and his creator. This brings the fictional world of Frankenstein into the real world problems between the rich and poor.

The historical context of colleges such as Cambridge learning the anatomy of the human body were used by Shelley in Frankenstein to criticize the rich and laws placed for by them. Through works like Frankenstein the English Government finally passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, which allowed for the Colleges to  take the unclaimed bodies of those who had died in both prisons and work houses. This effectively ended a majority of the body snatching, that was happening at the time, by providing these colleges with the bodies that they required. Frankenstein and other works  have shown to not only further literature, but eventually led to furthering of science itself.

MacDonald, Helen. “Humanity’s Discards”: The New South Wales Anatomy Act 1881.” Mortality 12.4 (2007): 365-382. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 May 2014.

Mitchell, Piers D., et al. “The Study Of Anatomy In England From 1700 To The Early 20Th Century.” Journal Of Anatomy 219.2 (2011): 91-99. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 May 2014

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.