Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Written by: Kathryn Harkup
Review by Allison O’Toole
2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 1818 was a time of enormous social and political change, and scientists were constantly making new discoveries. Kathryn Harkup, in Making the Monster, explores much of the scientific knowledge that could have informed Shelley’s depiction of her Monster and mad scientist.
Based on the title alone, I expected this to be a bit of a different book. While science takes up a significant amount of the book’s focus, it’s far from the only focus, where Harkup explores diverse topics from the Illuminati, to the biographies of Mary Shelley’s husband and father, to the history skin grafting. The book also doesn’t focus exclusively on scientific understandings of the early 19th century, but sometimes looks at contemporary science as well. Modern transplantation, for example, didn’t influence Frankenstein – particularly because Victor wasn’t performing transplants – but it’s interesting to see how we can still feel some echoes of this landmark novel in modern science.
Harkup favours familiar language over scientific jargon, so the book moves along at a quick clip. In fact, it might be too quick; while a few significant figures, like Luigi Galvani (whose work may have inspired Victor Frankenstein’s interest in electricity) get a number of pages for a thorough examination, much of the book flits from one topic to the next in a matter of a few paragraphs. This brief summary of many topics will certainly provide a reader with some new and interesting trivia, the information might be easier to retain when explored on a deeper level.
That said, much of the trivia is interesting. I really enjoyed the morbid history of the “Collection” chapter, which focused on the issues of grave robbing and laws limiting the dissection of corpses, both of which were problems plaguing 19th century scientists and medical students. I also appreciated the breadth of research, and anyone who picks up the book is likely to learn something new; if you’re familiar with scientific history, the literary biography sections may provide some new insights, or vice-versa.
With such an ambitious breadth of information to cover, there is inevitably some confusion arising from the book’s organization. Luigi Galvani is mentioned a few times before he’s formally introduced, and there are two separate chapters on electricity, even though electricity isn’t expressly used to bring the Monster to life in the novel. Additionally, Harkup doesn’t explore the plot of Frankenstein until the final chapters of the book, which can sometimes get bogged down by the plot summary.
More than once, Shelley is criticized for being “frustratingly vague” concerning how exactly the Creature is brought to life. To me, this seems like criticizing the novel for something it’s not trying to do. While science is undoubtedly a significant part of Shelley’s novel, it’s mostly confined to the beginning, the rest concerning the fallout from Victor’s decision to abandon his Creature, and his responsibility to (and for) the Monster he’s created. Some evocation of modern science lent it an air of plausibility, but it was never meant to be a factual account of real science.
Furthermore, while the book mostly avoids a humourless, Neil-DeGrasse-Tyson-on-Twitter take on the book, Harkup does point out reasons that the story would be impossible. While it’s certainly interesting to know what kinds of challenges doctors in Victor’s time would have had to deal with, I was less charmed by the nitpicking of an early science fiction novel’s realism, particularly from the perspective of modern scientific understanding. It feels a bit humourless to point out, for example, that the Creature would not have survived more than a few days due to a severely compromised immune system.
Tying together all of these disparate threads – science, political history, literary biography, etc. – is a comprehensive timeline at the end of the book. It demonstrates how much change and rapid development was occurring as Shelley was writing (and later editing) the novel, and Harkup demonstrates how much of that development, particularly in the field of science, is present in Shelley’s text. The book never feels boring, since it’s rapidly moving from one idea to the next, and I enjoyed reading it, even as I questioned what its central thesis or conclusion was meant to be.
Borrow it. If you’re interested in Frankenstein or the history of science, particularly in the 18th and 19th century, Making the Monster will definitely have some nuggets of interest for you. The breadth of topics means that everyone stands to learn from it, but also limits its usefulness as a reference text after you’ve read it once – if you want a comprehensive exploration of any of these topics, look elsewhere. But if you want a quick read that might help you appreciate the way that science informed Frankenstein and how Frankenstein can be felt in later scientific discoveries, this one’s worth checking out from the library.