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“A Spark of Life”: Emotions and Nervous Fluids in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

By C. Paoletti


An interesting image of body in early nineteenth-century British culture may be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This paper will analyse Shelley’s description of the monster, focusing on the scientific and philosophical background. First, the monster acquires life from a spark of electricity, revealing, Shelley’s familiarity with medicine and biology, in particular with Galvanism and Erasmus Darwin’s materialism. While electricity seems one of the most important themes of the novel, the description of the body is also directly connected with the extensive investigations on the nervous system carried on in eighteenth-century British universities and particularly in Edinburgh, where Darwin was educated. Accordingly, Frankenstein’s successful effort of giving life to dead matter may be considered as the effect of coeval medical knowledge. Moreover, the creature’s search for a family, friendship and society implies instinctive benevolent affections, emotions and sympathy for other people’s feeling. As the scientist Victor Frankenstein was able to give life to his creature’s body, but not to give him a soul, moral sentiments and feelings must derive from the artificially-created body. In fact, Victor’s creature possesses a natural ‘sensibility’, the innate inclination to perceive other people’s feelings that Samuel Johnson referred to the peculiar organization of the nervous system in human beings, and particularly in women. Far from following her parents’ example – both William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft criticised or underestimated the role of sentiments and sensibility in moral judgement – Shelley allowed feeling to the monster, showing a significant connection between living bodies, emotions and happiness

Topics: Mary Shelley, Sociability, Fear
Year: 2009
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