Literary Criticism of Frankenstein and Radical Science by Marilyn Butler

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is one of the most controversial books ever written. It was crafted when the author was in her early 20s and is now widely considered the first science fiction novel to ever grace the literary world. The subject matter revolves around a hermit scientist obsessed with the idea of animating creatures developed from dismembered corpses. Shelly’s clarity indicates that she was a science aficionado determined to write a Gothic horror novel that incorporated the realities of the day. Although the scientist (Victor) succeeds in bringing his creature to life, it is hideous and now has to grapple with the realism of rejection. Although various philosophical themes are explored in the novel, a great deal of focus was directed on science and its role in a changing world. Contemporary writers have also acknowledged Shelly’s scientific proclivity and often delved deep into the matter (Harkup 23). Marilyn Butler is one such writer best known for her “Frankenstein and Radical Science” critique on scientific accuracy in the novel and the author’s influences. She also investigates scientific materialism and its subsequent relationship with methodological naturalism.  The idea that man can embark on a quest to create life as presented by Butler is particularly intriguing and prompts a serious reductionist debate. It is, thus, fundamental to the respond main ideas presented by the author while also discussing how the novel can be seen, in part, as a product of early 19th century scientific debate.

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Butler posits that Frankenstein was a result of scientific curiosity at a time when the public was not quite ready for radical ideas. It therefore comes as no surprise that Shelly’s work was publicly criticized for the type of science it presented. Natural science was, essentially, only discussed by sophisticated scholars who often failed to reach a consensus on the origin of life and the true nature of life. Such arguments remained in university debate halls for it was feared that they would spark public outrage within society. However, Mary Shelly represents a breed of new radical authors who are unafraid of asking provocative questions that hinge on scientific accuracy. Her views were, most likely, influenced by William Lawrence who is still remembered as one of the most influential natural scientist of his day. It is also critical to acknowledge that Shelly wrote her novel at the height of the materialism vs. vitalism debate. Butler believes that questions surrounding the biological nature of life and the idea that there is a life force that created humanity were factors that motivated Shelly’s narration (406). In my opinion, I believe that Frankenstein was written to express the author’s stance and her support for radical science. In addition to this, it was an expression of the transformative power of scientific progress and how it could, possibly alter the course of history. Nevertheless, the public did not readily embrace Shelly’s work since they considered it a blatant attack on Christian traditions.

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Butler also views Frankenstein, as creation of the scientific revolution occurring during the time. Her novel is, essentially, a speculative narrative investigating the lengths man was ready to go in the name of science. Butler argues that Frankenstein was a radical view on human capability and an exploration of the possibility of breaking perceived boundaries. The so-called mad scientist burns the midnight oil with a singleness of purpose. His aim is to create a human life without involving a woman and without God’s approval. It is this ironic subversion that informs Shelly’s work with the primary of objective being to provide answers to a wide range of difficult questions that man may ask at any particular juncture in life (Harkup). She explores methodological naturalism in a rare fashion and the consequences that such an approach would have on a society that had initially not considered any such effects. In her criticism, Butler argues that Shelly erroneously embraces secular humanism wholly without even considering its consequences in a society steeped in theism. In my opinion, I agree with Butler point of view particularly because spiritual bankruptcy may result in unforeseen eventualities chief among them being communal fragmentation. It is, however, commendable how Shelly explores the power of scientific advance and its impact on society if left unchecked. She presents a horrific future reality where popular conceptions of the world may be shattered paving the way for a new school of thought: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being substance itself” (Shelly 8). Thus, Shelly believed in maintaining society’s lid and maintaining the existing state of affairs.

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The development of Shelly’s text is indicative of the transformations which were occurring around her and the prevalent scientific developments of the early 19th century. Butler notes that successive versions of Shelly’s book differ depending on prevailing public sentiments during specific historical eras. Shelly’s first edition was published in late 1818 at a time when ideas revolving around materialism had swept across Europe. It bears noticeable evidences of materialism in its plot and the manner in which the author chooses to develop central characters. Shelly begins by presenting the protagonist (Victor) as a rational individual who is mostly concerned with science and its benefits to society.  Victor is also presented as a voracious reader who was mainly influenced by writings by renowned alchemists (Shelley 22). He searches for the meaning of life through science in a desperate attempt to understand the origins of humanity and to foil his fatalistic attitude. Sadly, he fails to attain a level of clarity on the issue and finality concedes that life is difficult to fathom and beyond any logical explanation. After travelling to Ingolstadt, his perspectives and philosophies soon change. He is introduced to the scientific world of chemistry and biology which gives him a better understanding of the creation process. Although he is not immediately convinced by what he studies, Victor still believes in the presence of a mysterious force that was responsible for what he witnessed in the material world. Butler believes that Victor’s beliefs were analogous with what he witnessed in the material world, hence his materialist sympathies. I, on the other hand, consider Victor’s characterization as a product of the 19th century scientific debate since owing to the fact that there is a slow progression towards vitalism.

Butler also assesses Shelly’s work as the embodiment of 19th century debates about the good that may be born out of scientific progress. From the onset, it is clear that Victor’s creature is a monster. He scours the night, collecting an array of body parts from looted graveyards in order to realize his dream (Shelley 34). Victor’s interest is particularly peeked by the brain and its role in animation. Butler is certain that Mary Shelly adopted this particular angle as a reflection of the influence that William Lawrence had on her life. The materialist debate had initially opposed the vitalist perspective that bodies were animated by an unknown life force (Pamboukian 45). Materialist influences are apparent in the creature’s ability to breathe and move around. Victor succeeds in creating another human life in the material sense using stolen body parts which were assembled on a human frame. Butler views this as a presentation of physical science and how Shelly was bent on using her space to espouse her materialistic outlook. In my evaluation, Shelly presents the creature as the inherent good that exists in scientific quests. Although it was initially rejected and considered a freak of nature, it strives to live a noble life but is eventually besmirched by society. Shelly writes: “I have good dispositions; my life has hitherto been harmless, and, in some degree, beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes…” (Shelley 93). This goes to suggests that although science is a force for good, it also has to be approached with a level of responsibility to avoid a destructive end. In conclusion, Marilyn Butler undertakes an informed critique of Frankenstein and how it was related radical science. She hypothesizes that the novel was a result of scientific curiosity and revolution that was taking place during this period. It is also indicative of various levels of transformation which is why Shelly’s work is an embodiment of 19th century debates about the good that may be born out of scientific progress

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