05 April 2018

Review: Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Samuel Holmes Vasbinder

Hardcover, 111 pages
Published 1984
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Samuel Holmes Vasbinder

This is a published version of a dissertation from the 1970s-- reading it, I'm convinced it was much easier to write one back then. This is really just an inflated article. Of the book's 82 pages of actual content (once you discount notes and bibliography), only about 30 of them are really worthwhile; the 25-page description of the critical tradition, for example, could have been a couple judiciously footnoted citations. Anyway, Vasbinder shows how Shelley made use of actual science in Frankenstein, both in terms of incorporating research on topics like electricity, and in terms of using the "new science" of induction/deduction/hypothesis (as distinct from alchemy and magic). He treats Frankenstein's methods with admirable thoroughness, teasing out what previous critics may have glossed over. He shows how Frankenstein's work was "based on the supposition that the structure of the universe was knowable by man through the careful application of human reason to the observation of natural phenomena" (65), better explicating for me the way that Frankenstein is a scientist in the modern sense-- and thus Frankenstein is a piece of science fiction.

Where he loses me is that he has an overly simplistic reading of the novel: because the novel's description of Frankenstein's adventures in corpses is calm and detached, he argues, there must not have been anything wrong with it. This overlooks that I think Frankenstein is the one who tells us about these studies, and he is hardly an unbiased narrator! To describe Shelley as having "positive attitude toward Newtonian science" (69) strips the novel of the very nuance that Vasbinder's analysis is trying to reveal. There may be more science in Frankenstein than pre-1984 critics admitted, but that doesn't mean Frankenstein had a positive attitude toward this science. So, some good insight, but weirdly subsumed into a misguided overall analysis of the novel.

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