Death and Life in Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.

23218465551_a70d44f5f9_b
Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature.
Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831. Featured as frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Shelley’s novel.
Source: Wellcome Library.
Far from the fantastic and improbable tale that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein now seems to us, the novel was declared by one reviewer upon publication to have “an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times”.
Among these were the scientific investigations into the states of life and death. Considerable uncertainty surrounded these categories. So much so that it was not far-fetched that Frankenstein should assert: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds” (ch. 4). He was not alone in considering that the boundary between life and death was imaginary and that it might be breached.
23274256776_ae45d8c0cb_b
A watercolour by Robert Smirke depicting a man being brought in by boat apparently drowned, his wife and family grieving on the shore.
A later engraving of this scene by Robert Pollard was dedicated to the Royal Humane Society in 1787 — Source: Wellcome Library.
Worried by the potential inability to distinguish between the states of life and death, two doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, set up the Royal Humane Society in London in 1774. I
t was initially called the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned”; its aims were to publish information to help people resuscitate others, and it paid for attempts to save lives (the Society paid more money if the attempt was successful).
Many people could not swim at this time despite the fact that they worked and lived along London’s rivers and canals.
There was an annual procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society’s methods, which may well have included people who had intended suicide too.
One such seems to have been Mary Shelley’s mother, the feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who after leaping from Putney Bridge into the Thames in the depth of depression complained “I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery”.
The pun on her “inhumane” treatment may well refer to the efforts of the Humane Society in rescuing her.2 The spectacular tales of apparent resurrections from the dead by the Society fed the public’s concern that it was impossible to be sure whether a person was truly dead and, consequently, fears of being buried alive grew.
Read on via The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein | The Public Domain Review

2 thoughts on “Death and Life in Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.

Please Leave A Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s