What have alchemists contributed to science and mankind? After all, they are most famous for failing to turn lead into gold. By the 19th century, when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written, alchemy was basically dead and “modern science” was in full effect. It was also around this time when Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God was dead.
So again I ask, what do we owe to the alchemists? This is one question, among others, that Mary Shelley tackled in her famous novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a novel about a scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, a self taught student of the alchemists, who succeeded in creating life. The obvious question is, what makes up life? Is life determined by our bodies, which Dr. Frankenstein made, or is life determined by our “souls” and conscience? Science has come a long way since the days of alchemy; we now know how our bodies move with the tendons and the muscles; we even know which parts of the brains are active during any particular activity; but what we don’t know is where the soul and conscience, if they exist, comes from.
I once watched an anime, which I am not embarrassed to admit, called Full Metal Alchemist. People on the show were obsessed with trying to create life. In particular, two young boys wanted to bring back to life their mother who died. They thought as long as they had all the physical pieces, mainly the body, they’d be able to do it. They failed miserably. On the show, as long as you had “equal value” you were able to mend anything. Broken radios were able to be fixed as long as all the pieces were still there for example. There was no equal value for the soul and conscience, however.
Mary Shelley, in her fictional novel, took the opposite approach and said life could be created, essentially out of nothing. The result was an eight foot tall “monster” who we now call Frankenstein, named after the doctor who created him, even though Shelley herself gives him no name.
Shelley leaves to the reader’s imagination how Frankenstein looks and even how he functions. Or more accurately I should say Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t tell us because he fears someone will make the same mistake he did. Everything we now associate with Frankenstein: flat head, bolts coming out of his neck, electricity running through his body, and green skin (in fact Shelley says Frankenstein’s skin is yellow) comes from a 1931 film adaptation of the novel.
Another theme in Frankenstein is that of evil. Just like Adam and Eve, both referenced in the book, Frankenstein was not born evil. All he wanted was to be accepted. Once it became obvious to him that this was not possible, that is when he turned evil.
After being rejected by humans, Frankenstein searches out his creator, Dr. Frankenstein, and asks he make Frankenstein a bride. Instead of torture, which Dr. Frankenstein insists will not work, Frankenstein attempts to use reason to persuade Dr. Frankenstein to do it. Dr. Frankenstein, partly feeling sorry for Frankenstein and partly afraid of the consequences if he denied the request, agreed to the task of making Frankenstein a bride. What happens next I will leave you to find out, if you haven’t already read the book.
There is no proper place to say this so I’ll just go ahead and say it here: I love 19th century writing. The way the authors of the time were able to make words flow on a page was simply brilliant. Now some of the stories from that era, such as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, are not high on my all time favourite books list, if I had one that is, but it doesn’t take anything away from the wit of the authors.