- IntroductionChemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein
Frankly, the tower of academic output devoted to dissecting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is alarming. It hit a new level of intensity this year, as the bicentennial of the Creature’s print birth occurs in 2018. We, the guest editors of this theme issue, have certainly contributed to the mania over the past few years, publishing Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives (Rutgers University Press, 2016), attending multiple conferences, and now co-editing this issue of Literature and Medicine. Perhaps you’re asking what we might still have to say after all this time? Good news! There always seems to be more to say, as this theme issue demonstrates. The following collection of original essays emphasizes two aspects of the novel that have not yet generated mountains of scholarly attention: the first, a close examination of the scientific culture that surrounded Shelley, and makes significant contributions to contextualizing her novel. “Wait,” you say, “Electricity! Galvanism! I know this!” But these essays largely focus on chemistry, which played an extremely important role in shaping ideas about life and the life sciences in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Several of our authors examine the centrality of the history of chemistry in Frankenstein, beginning with the novel and then working through the film cycle from James Whale’s contribution (1931) to Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation. Our contributors’ analyses illustrate the various ways in which scientific discourse significantly shaped—and was shaped by—Frankenstein.
Our second group of essays comes from the field of disability studies, which offers useful lenses to better understand the Creature and his relationship to Frankenstein as well as how this relationship portrays differences in ability and appearance. Focusing their efforts on the novel, the films, a new ballet, comic books, and a work of fiction set in Baghdad after the American invasion, these authors provide unique insights into the ways in which scarred, disfigured, stitched-together, [End Page 264] and “ugly” bodies contribute to our reading of the character credited with being the first science fiction “monster.” Such readings of “the Other” encourage readers to approach the narrative from a different point of view, adding to the richness and complexity of the text and to our understanding of how it has influenced our thinking about difference.
To be honest, we didn’t actually plan the collection to come out this way, but its cohesion around these two points of interest suggests that Frankenscholarship is headed in new and interesting directions. As an early modern historian of science, Allison is grateful to see her modernist colleagues becoming interested in literary depictions of science. Mary Shelley was clearly writing from a position of privilege, given her family background, education, and exposure to the Romantic avant-garde; as such, the way that she weaves scientific knowledge into her fiction tells us a great deal about the popularization of science in early nineteenth-century England. Its incorporation into daily life becomes even more evident in the plays that emerged from the Frankenstein novel, which saw great success throughout England and Europe well after Shelley, who had no control over how the authors of these dramas interpreted the novel, had moved on to other literary endeavors. The science in the films, which becomes increasingly technologically sophisticated as the films become more recent, also offers an important perspective for thinking about the popularization of scientific discourse. In this case, the ascent of the “mad scientist” into the higher echelons of popular culture and the kinds of science associated with this pervasive character gain traction and become an intricate part of our zeitgeist due to the prominence of the Universal studio films, the Hammer cycle, Young Frankenstein, Branagh’s love letter to Shelley, and a flood of other iterations of her basic narrative. We owe the film image of the out-of-control doctor/scientist/researcher largely to Whale, whose Henry, aka Victor (Colin Clive), got the ball rolling in Universal’s Frankenstein (1931) and whose Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) took it in fabulous new directions in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Tracing these characters to their...