Study Guide

Frankenstein Science

By Mary Shelley


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Pop quiz! You walk into your neighborhood Whole Foods to buy some corn flakes. The box is labeled, "Contains GMOs." Do you think:

  • A. "Sweet! GMOs can provide valuable extra nutrients and superior crop resistance, leading to longer and healthier lives for some of the world's most impoverished people. Plus, it makes my corn flakes cheaper!"
  • B. "Shocking! Humans have no right to meddle with nature, particularly since the long-term effects of genetic modification are entirely unstudied. Who knows that Frankenfood might do to our bodies or the environment?"
  • C. "Eh, I can't even deal with this. Maybe I'll get some bacon instead."

If you were Mary Shelley, you'd probably choose "None of the above." Frankenstein isn't a knee-jerk anti-science screed—but it's also not a wide-eyed, "Gee, isn't science nifty" kind of thing. Instead, it's a warning about the abuse and misuse of science by ignorant or irresponsible individuals. Frankenstein's problem? No one ever bothered to teach him ethics or responsibility or good old common sense. Frankenstein might not be anti-science as much as pro-humanities.

Questions About Science

  1. How is alchemy portrayed in Frankenstein? What does alchemy even mean in the context of this book? Is Frankenstein's monster the product of alchemy or of science?
  2. What's the difference, in this book anyway, between "alchemy" and "science"? Does Victor see them as the same thing? Is this the real problem here, that he's calling it "science" when it is clearly not? Or is what he does science after all?
  3. What is it about science that is terrifying enough to merit a cautionary tale about obsessively pushing the boundaries of that field? Doesn't it seem rather quaint to be afraid of nineteenth-century science? What about 21st century science? Has our discourse (language) changed when we talk about science, or is Frankenstein still relevant?

Chew on This

Victor considers his creation to be an act of science, but he thinks the rest of society would call it an act of evil. In fact, Frankenstein argues that there is no difference between the two.

Frankenstein thinks science is neutral; it's the scientists we have to watch out for.