2 Oct 2015

Frankenstein for 2017 GCSE and IGCSE Themes of Science, Genius and the Tabula Rasa


Shelley drew inspiration for the creature from recent scientific work.
1. GALVANISM: Luigi Galvani’s experimented in the 1780s to 1790s using electric currents to make dead frogs move. In 1803, his nephew made a public demonstration on a criminal executed at Newgate. The Newgate Record reported:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
Link this to the ‘convulsive motion’ of the creature awakening in Chapter 5 and Chapter 2, where Frankenstein learns about ‘electricity and galvanism’.
2. DISSECTION & BODY SNATCHING: by dissecting dead bodies and even live animals, doctors hoped to learn more about how the human body worked. However, before the Anatomy Act of 1832, there weren’t enough bodies to dissect as only criminals condemned to 
death and dissection could be used. This led to bodysnatchers, who would steal fresh corpses from graveyards. In the 1790s, one gang was selling corpses for ‘two guineas and a crown’: equivalent to almost £3,000.
Link this to the gruesome descriptions of Frankenstein’s vivisection as he ‘tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay’ and dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave’ in Chapter 4.
3. EARLY CHEMISTRY: At the time of writing, the science of Chemistry was relatively new, having previously been thought of as a type of magic. When coming up with the idea for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley read Humphry Davy’s. Phrases from it appear in her novel almost word for word as in Chapter 3 where M. Waldman says: ‘Scientists penetrate the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places’. Note that nature is female, violated by male scientists.
POLAR EXPEDITIONS: at the time of writing,
no one had ever managed to reach the 
North Pole.


Mary Shelley was surrounded by men of genius - from her distant stepfather William Godwin, to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their circle of friends included famous poets and thinkers.
Both Walton and Frankenstein represent the lone genius. Yet Shelley shows they are different.
1. PUBLIC BENEFIT & PERSONAL GLORY: Walton desires to bring public ‘benefit to all mankind, to the last generation’. Frankenstein seeks personal satisfaction, praising himself above ‘the wisest men since the history of creation’, deserving ‘gratitude’ and to be ‘bless[ed]’.
2. SELFISH OBSESSION & ISOLATION: in a moment of rare insight, in Chapter 4, Frankenstein admits tha t he was to ‘blame’ for chasing his dream to the exclusion of all ‘feelings of affection’. Shelley criticizes the cult of genius in the same chapter where Frankenstein admits: ‘A human being in perfection should never allow passion or desire to disturb his tranquility’. In this, he includes ‘the pursuit of knowledge.’
Link to: ‘I lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.’
3. BLINDNESS: throughout the novel, Shelly questions Frankenstein’s obsession. First, he pursues ‘chimeras of boundless grandeur’ that M. Krempe tells him are wrong. Even when his experiments succeed in Chapter 5, they are morally wrong: ‘the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.’  Link to: enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my work’, ‘as if I had been guilty of a crime’.

How Character is Shaped

Throughout Frankenstein, Shelley explores philosophical theories of how character is shaped. Are we good - or evil - by nature, or due to the experiences we have?
She used two major writers.
In his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ (1690) Locke argued that a child is a “blank slate” (or in Latin, ‘tabula rasa’) that is formed only through experience. 
Rousseau believed similarly that a child’s upbringing is responsible for his later behaviour, as he argued in Emile, or ‘On Education’ (1762).
These theories were controversial as they implied that anyone, however humble, had the potential for brilliance, and that evil was created by the evils of society - which must take responsibility. It also contradicted church teaching on original sin, that humans are born evil. In this respect, Shelley’s novel is radical, challenging the widely accepted beliefs of her time.
Link to where the creature says in Chapter 10: ‘I was good. Misery made me a fiend’ and in Chapter 15, ‘I learned to admire their virtues and deprecate the vices of mankind.’
Like a blank slate, the creature’s actions are formed by his experiences, yet he naturally tends towards good. Even when shot, then attacked by villagers, he behaves with kindness, helping the cottagers who think it must be a “good spirit”. 
He is shocked by the brutality of humanity.

You can download a sample for free on the iBooks store here.

The author, , is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.