After taking a short hiatus over the summer, the Medical Humanities Reading Group reconvened for the start of the 2013–2014 academic year. Meetings will again be held throughout the year on the second Wednesday of each month at 6pm in the Philosophy Department Lounge on the 7th floor of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building. Our first meeting this fall was held on October 9th, and the topic of discussion was Mary Shelley’s classic story Frankenstein, first published in 1818.
Discussion on Wednesday night was fantastic as usual. We started out with introductions, since though many former participants had returned, we also had several new faces. The group continues to consist of people from a broad range of professions: university grads, faculty, and staff; doctors and medical students; philosophers and psychologists; english teachers and lit profs; surgeons and accupuncturists. The breadth of life and work experience among the participants makes for an incredible scope of perspectives and contributions during discussion.
As is our tradition, the group began discussion of the reading by giving everyone in attendance a chance to share, uninterrupted, their first impressions and persistent questions from reading the text. Many themes were raised throughout these comments, including: the fantastical elements of the narrative, with hints of early sci-fi; the affect of alienation on development; the importance of appearance to social and cultural reception; strains of alchemism, reductionism, and vitalism in the science of the period; and the portrayal of tension between different moral imperatives such as the greater good, the discovery of knowledge, and the keeping of promises.
An observation that more than one reader shared was just how astounding it was that Mary Shelley could write such a culturally insightful, expertly crafted, and chillingly compelling novel at the age of only 19. The group discussed some of the author’s life history as a means to gaining some insight into the genesis and method of her achievement. I’ll try to reproduce some of the incredible history we discussed below.
Mary Shelley was born in 1797, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (feminist and author of The Vindication of the RIghts of Women) and William Godwin (a famous novelist and political philosopher in his day). Unfortunately, her mother died from complications giving birth to her—the placenta tore, became infected, and Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicemia 11 days after her daughter’s birth. (According to the doctors in our group, this was known at the time as ‘purple fever’, and was a scourge of humanity for millennia, until doctors learned to wash their hands before treating women in labor).
Mary herself also faced plenty of complications related to childbirth throughout her young life. She met and fell in love with Percy Shelley, already a famous poet and a devotee of her father, when she was just 15. Percy was already married, but Mary lost their first child at the age of 17, in April of 1814. The baby was born two months premature, and died only two weeks later. Purportedly, Percy spurned the infant, shocked by its appearance, and abandoned Mary at her bedside. He subsequently began an affair with her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, but made up with Mary shortly thereafter. Mary and Percy eloped to the Continent later that year—and Claire went with them.
In the summer of 1816 Mary and Percy summered with Lord Byron (the poet) and John Polidori (an English writer and physician) in the Swiss Alps. One day at a picnic the four writers challenged each other: who could pen the best horror story? A few weeks later, Mary wrote Frankenstein. Later that year, Percy’s wife Harriet killed herself, and Percy and Mary immediately married. (Mary’s half sister Fanny Imlay had also killed herself that fall, after a long depression that began with her desolation at having been left behind when Mary and Claire absconded with Percy.) Mary lost a second child, and a third, before giving birth to her fourth, last, and only surviving child, Percy Florence. (Mary’s third child died after Percy dragged his family to Venice to meet up with Claire, now Byron’s mistress and mother of his child, who was sick. Mary’s child promptly caught the illness from Claire’s and died.)
But I’ve skipped ahead. Apropos of the personal drama, Frankenstein was first published anonymously two years after Mary wrote the story, in 1818. Percy wrote and signed an introduction to this first edition of the novel. In the second edition, published in 1823, Mary Shelley’s name was printed, revealing her as the author to the public. By this point her husband Percy had already died, in 1922, in a boating incident. It is still uncertain whether his drowning was an accident, suicide, or murder. His and Mary’s son, Percy Florence, eventually inherited the Shelley family’s earldom. Mary Shelley never remarried or had any other children, and she died of a brain tumor in 1851 at the age of 53.
And to all this back to the novel itself: in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an ambitious young scientist named Victor Frankenstein fashions a creature, hewn from corpses claimed from the graveyard, and imbues it with life. Upon its (re)annimation, Victor is disgusted by his feat rather than triumphant, and flees his laboratory in shock and horror. His creature is left behind to understand and enculturate itself. Repeatedly spurned by its creator and others traumatized by its appearance, the monster turns on Victor, and they engage in a battle of life and death that ranges across continents.
Some have speculated that Victor’s horror upon viewing his creation, and his subsequent abandonment of it, are based on Percy Shelley’s reaction to Mary’s first premature infant, and his abandonment of them both. Percy often used the pen name Victor when publishing anonymously, and that’s also the name that Mary chose for her protagonist. Regardless of this possible source of inspiration for the story, it simply cannot be denied that Mary Shelley’s creation is a work of genius with enduring power and timeless relevance.