Top 10 Mad Doctors of Science

Modern science provides us with plenty of monsters, doesn’t it?  The Bomb.  The unravelling human genome.  The tyrant computer.  The deadly strain.  The cyborg.  The genetically modified android.

But who are the Top 10 Mad Doctors of science from the contemporary inventory of terrors from film and fiction?  A quick consensus from CASE has yielded the following hot list:

1.   Dr Frankenstein

Claim to fame: the first great myth of the industrial age, the original and still the maddest.  Frankenstein was, of course, the name of the scientist, not the creature

Demonic pedigree:  The subtitle of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, begs comparison with Prometheus’s theft of fire from the gods for humanity’s profit with Victor Frankenstein’s dream of unlimited power through science.  Scientist as god, creates life

2.   Dr Strangelove

Claim to fame:  the most influential archetype of the scientist in cinema

Demonic pedigree:  He is mad, in the custom of Victor Frankenstein; he is prosthetic, implying machine-like inhumanity; and he is corporate, detached from any personal responsibility through the collective cover of the ‘Bland Corporation’.  His spastic black-gloved arm forever threatens to expose Strangelove’s mania for destruction, jerking into a Sieg Heil with erratic and embarrassing zeal.  As Peter Sellers put it, “the arm hated the rest of the body for having made a compromise – that arm was a Nazi.”

3.   Dr Rotwang

Claim to fame:  from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis, and one of the early prototypes of the mad scientist

Demonic pedigree: the creation of the first female robot Maschinenmensch, wild, unkempt shock of Einsteinesque hair, and a lab to die for (or in).

4.   Dr Faustus


Claim to fame:  antique tale about a negotiated pact between mad scientist and the devil

Demonic pedigree: Learned scholar, who in his quest for the true essence of life, summons the Devil (Mephistopheles), who offers to serve him as long as Faust lives.  Thought to be based on dubious and shifty German magician and alchemist Dr. Johann Georg Faust

5.   Dr Lecter

Claim to fame: In 2003, the American Film Institute named him the number one film villain of all time (unmistakably pictured at top of posting)

Demonic pedigree: an ingenious, cultured Lithuanian psychiatrist and resourceful serial killer, who practices cannibalism upon his victims.  Enough said.  By the way, have you noticed so far how many of these guys are European?

6.   Dr Moreau

Claim to fame: rampant drooling vivisectionist from HG Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr Moreau.  He also ate all the pies

Demonic pedigree:  In an attempt to create a race without malice, the doctor has transformed various beasts into strange looking man-creatures, “human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal.”  European

7.   Dr Jekyll


Claim to fame:  from the 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The very phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has come to signify wild or polar behaviour

Demonic pedigree:  One of the best guidebooks of the Victorian era because of its penetrating description of the basic dichotomy of the C19th outward respectability and inward lust.  Potion, anyone?  European

8.   Dr No

Claim to fame:  Dr Julius No, the very first James Bond villain in the film series, a ‘brilliant’ scientist, and an “unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family”.  Aha, we’re not entirely to blame for this one!

Demonic pedigree:  Atomic scientist and prominent despot in SPECTRE.  Like Strangelove and Rotwang, wore sinister black leather gloves.  Dabbling with atomic buffoonery, both of his hands were blown off and replaced with crude bionic ones

9.   Dr Fu Manchu


Claim to fame:  A master criminal, Fu Manchu works for the overthrow of Western civilisation or the “White race.”  Who can blame him?  He probably wants to get into our top 8

Demonic pedigree:  from The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu: “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present … Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu.”  Not European

10.   Dr Caligari

Claim to fame:  from groundbreaking 1920 silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the earliest, most influential and arty German Expressionist films

Demonic pedigree:  deranged Doctor Caligari and his faithful somnambulist Cesare conduct a string of murders in a German mountain village.  European


Now, there may be many scientists who believe that these and a thousand other perversions of genius have been laid unjustly at our feet.  These monsters, they would insist, are the bastards of technology: sins of applied, not pure science. 

Well, perhaps it comforts their conscience a little to use this much-muddled division of labour.  Doesn’t work for me.  This persistent folklore of mad doctors reflects a deep-seated public fear of science, a fear of the arrogance of science and scientists.  Time to sit up and notice.



    November 16, 2006

    I was quite confused at first with regards to the absence of Dr. Caligari from your list, before realising that he was way down there at the bottom.

    And – Hannibal Lecter the number one movie villain of all time? EVERYONE knows that the number one movie villain of all time is Darth Vader! 😉


    November 16, 2006

    You may have a point about Caligari, mate. But Darth Vader, not sure. Firstly, he’s no doctor. And second, according to Eddie Izzard, his first name is Jeff, which takes the edge off him a bit in my book


    November 16, 2006

    I have to nominate Dr. Clayton Forrester of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 ??????? a fiendish scientist with a truly diabolical mind. He attempts to take over the world by exposing mankind to the worst movie ever made (once he has determined what it is) thereby driving us to insanity. Awe-inspiring.


    November 16, 2006

    Isn’t Jeff the God of biscuits in Eddie Izzard’s world?


    November 16, 2006

    Or maybe he was Darth’s brother?

    Anyhow, forget that. Who have we missed on our Top 10 All Time list of demonic scientists?

    Dr Bloodmoney anyone?


    November 16, 2006

    “Professor Moriarty”: appears to have evaded the list, perhaps due to his elevated academic title. Described as the Napoleon of crime with a fiendish mathematical mind and the archetypal supervillain of fiction. There is some speculation that the character was based in part on astronomer “Simon Newcomb”: a brilliant mathematician who had earned a reputation for spite and malice, apparently seeking to destroy the careers and reputations of rival scientists.

    Not forgetting “Dr Crane”: a psychiatrist aka the Scarecrow (not Frasier) featured recently in Batman Begins and had the tendency of wearing a sackcloth on his head together with the use of hallucinogenic substances to inflict fear in victims. The Doctor is most definitely in the (mad) house.


    November 16, 2006

    What about “Dr Sir William Gull”:, the physician who appears in both the “Alan Moore”: Graphic Novel “From Hell”: and its “big screen adaptation”: and is the masonic obsessed “Jack the Ripper”:

    Sue A.

    November 16, 2006

    Dare I suggest Prof. Hubert J Farnsworth ? Not dangerous exactly but definately wandering in the brain department. He has cloned himself, again not necessarily dangerous but his clone was an obnoxious 12 year old. He also aggravated global warming which became a global crisis in 3003 when Hayley’s Comet ran out of ice cubes to drop in our oceans. Plus he worked for Momcorp and we all know Mom is definately an evil genius. Should we be damned by our company policy though ? In hindsight the inventor of the Smell-O-Scope can’t be all bad.

    Sue A.

    November 16, 2006

    PS. Of course Jeff was the God of biscuits :-

    “And then the Romans came along with their gods that they had borrowed from the Greeks. They invaded Greece and conquered them and ??????? and stole all their gods??????and renamed them with Roman names. Cause the Roman gods before that were kind of crap, you know ??????? Jeff, the god of biscuits. And Simon, the god of hairdos. ”

    Eddie Izzard, Dressed to Kill


    November 16, 2006

    Ooooh how about an up to date reference! What about “Battlestar Galactica’s”: “Dr. Gaius Baltar”: the newly crowned president of the republic and “cylon”: colloborator. Never has a mad scientist seemed quite as self obsessed with both his own beauty and the chance to get in the knickers of any “babe”: that comes along …


    November 16, 2006

    Fans of the cinema may well remember Dr. Phibes;
    not really a man of science but a doctor of theology and music who killed many doctors of medicine.

    Additionally what about Dr. Evil himself; as seen in Austin Powers International Man of Mystery.
    Pretty evil……and he cloned himself.


    November 16, 2006

    That’s more like it! Doctors Baltar, Phibes and the Profs gratefully accepted. One assumes the Profs were doctors first, but you never know with these evil characters; some can be very shifty.

    I’d like to add Doc Ock to the list. Mostly on behalf of my son James who thinks Spiderman is bloody marvellous, whether in guise of Marvel hero, widescreen cinema or Playstation platformer.

    He tells me that Dr Otto Octavius, better known as Doctor Octopus, was a brilliant and respected nuclear physicist, inventor, and lecturer. But, as we can all guess, his experimenting all went wrong and he ended up with too many limbs, most of them diabolically mechanical (scientist as semi-automatan again).

    Things is though, seems that Doc Ock, being stocky and myopic man, was modeled after singer Roy Orbison. A recipe for disaster from the start if you ask me . . .


    November 16, 2006

    A fascinating article on the maddest doctor of all:

    Aija Ozolins
    Dreams and Doctrines: Dual Strands in Frankenstein

    In her Journal the entry made by Mary Shelley for February 22, 1815, records the birth of a seven-month baby that was “not expected to live.” The laconic entry for March 6, “Find my baby dead,” understates the impact of the child’s death, as is indicated by the entry for March 9: “Still think about my little baby???????’tis hard indeed for a mother to lose a child.” How deeply Mary brooded on her loss is apparent from the entry for March 19: “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire and it lived. Awake and find no baby.”1 This dream of reanimation apparently lodged in Mary’s subconscious and eventually blended with the more famous dream of the following year, the one described in the Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: “I saw???????with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,???????I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”2

    Having thus found “her story” in a dream, Mary began her contribution to that famous set of ghost stories with what is now the opening of ???5???????”It was on a dreary night of November”???????and with the intention of writing only “a short tale.” But Shelley urged her to develop the idea at greater length, which she did, by rationalizing and moralizing the spontaneous core of horror.

    This twofold process of composition???????subconscious generation and conscious elaboration???????has resulted in an obviously layered work: e.g., the monster’s narrative is embedded in Frankenstein’s narrative, which in turn is framed by Walton’s Letters and Continuation. Knowing that ???5 was part of the original kernel, critics have reached divergent conclusions on the subsequent accretions: some hold the Gothic core of the dream as central and object to the didacticism of the monster’s narrative, while others approve of the social and moral themes and thus regard the monster’s narrative as central.3 I propose to examine both the oneiric and the didactic components, beginning with a survey of the dreams that figure in the novel and a discussion of the doppelg???nger motif, continuing with the didactic component as expressed in the monster’s narrative, and concluding with the didacticism of the Frankenstein and Walton narratives.

    1. THE MONSTER AS DOPPELG?????NGER. The word dream is used in the novel in various senses. It can be a synonym for the ideals of Frankenstein and Walton, who both refer to their lonely quests as dreams or daydreams (?????? 01, 02, 3, 4, 5). It can also signify what is illusory or insubstantial: before the creation of the monster, and especially afterward, Frankenstein often speaks of how unreal his life seems (?????? 3, 7, 17, 21). Finally, there are actual dreams: Frankenstein has a premonitory dream of his fianc???e’s death (???5); he has nightmares after the monster has killed Henry Clerval (???21); and sometimes he finds solace in dreams in which he is united with all his loved ones (??????23-24). In most instances dreams are associated with illusoriness or with ideals that turn into nightmares of horror and guilt, but at the same time they all indirectly point back to Mary’s seminal dream.

    Let us return to that original dream to examine another element that informs the novel???????the motif of the doppelg???nger. Whatever we call it???????shadow, objectified id, or double of the ego personality4???????this motif of a second self constitutes the chief source of the novel’s latent power. Occasionally the double in literature is an embodiment of good (as in Poe’s “William Wilson”), but more often he is an image of man’s innate propensity toward evil.

    There is ample evidence in the novel that the creature functions as the scientist’s baser self. Frankenstein’s epithets for him consistently connote evil: devil, fiend, daemon, horror, wretch, monster, monstrous image, vile insect, abhorred entity, detested form, hideous phantasm, odious companion, and demoniacal corpse. Neutral terms like creature and being are comparatively rare. Most important, there is Frankenstein’s thinking of him as “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me” (???7). And after each murder Frankenstein acknowledges his complicity: “I not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer” (???9); cf ?????? 8, 21, 22).

    One sure sign of the double is his haunting presence. Maria Mahoney characterizes the feeling as “someone or something behind you, an ominous adversary dogging your footsteps…[a] sinister and truly evil figure lurking in the dark.”5 Even though Frankenstein initially flees from his creature and even though their direct confrontations are few, the monster is nevertheless a ubiquitous presence in his life. Wandering about the city in order to evade his creature, Frankenstein compares himself to Coleridge’s Mariner, who also walks “in fear and dread,/…Because he knows a frightful fiend/Doth close behind him tread” (???5). When he agrees to fashion a mate for his creature he is told to expect constant surveillance: “I shall watch your progress with unutterable anxiety; and fear not but that when you are ready I shall appear” (???17). After breaking his promise he is even more oppressed by a sense of the monster’s presence; even his days take on a nightmarish quality: “although the sun shone,” he felt only “a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared” at him (???21).

    The psychological motif of the double is reinforced by several visual tableaux that hint at a secret sympathy between the monster and his maker. At the beginning of her dream Mary saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” but at its conclusion the positions are reversed, with the “horrid thing” standing at the student’s bedside and “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes” (???I). This picture is repeated at the end of the novel when the monster stands sorrowfully over the corpse of Frankenstein (???C). Similarly, there are three moonlight encounters between the two. Although meetings by lightning and moonlight are a conventional part of the Gothic landscape, Mary’s conjunction of man, moon, and monster is traceable to her dream and serves to emphasize the close relationship between them. Also, because most of these moonlight encounters are preceded by a crime, they spotlight the creature’s jeering, malevolent form.

    The last and most important point regarding the double is the necessity to confront and recognize the dark aspect of one’s personality in order to transform it by an act of conscious choice. Ideally, the Shadow diminishes as one’s awareness increases. “Freedom comes,” according to Mahoney, “not in eliminating the Shadow…but in recognizing him in yourself.”6 Prospero acknowledges Caliban???????”This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”???????but Frankenstein’s typical reactions are first to flee, then to kill. His rejection of his creature is crucial, both in the present psychological context and in the sociological context we shall consider later. Frankenstein, as Philmus says, is always “fleeing from self-knowledge,” always seeking “to lose himself in the external world.”7 and thus denying, in Nelson’s words, the “nether forces for which he should have accepted a fully aware responsibility.”8

    2. THE DEFENSE OF POLYPHEMUS. The duality of the novel’s didactic component is foreshadowed in the juxtaposition of the subtitle referring to Frankenstein, “The Modern Prometheus,” and the epigraph from Paradise Lost, which applies to the creature’s predicament: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” In Frankenstein’s narrative the creature constructed from parts of cadavers and vivified by electricity is an “artificial man,” but when Mary traces the social implications of the experiment, when she humanizes the monster and elicits sympathy for him, and when she allows him to tell his own story, summarizing his life from his first day of consciousness to his encounter with Frankenstein many months later, he takes on the aspect of the “natural man” who recapitulates the stages between man in the state of nature and man in civilized society. As such, he is often the mouthpiece for Lockean, Godwinian, and Shelleyan ideas.9

    In the six chapters told from the creature’s point of view we learn how he acquired knowledge and benevolence and why he became malevolent. The agents of his education were his sensations, his observations of the De Lacey family, and his reading. Faithful to the Lockean concept that there are no innate ideas, all knowledge being derived from experience, the creature’s monologue begins with the Lockean progression from inarticulate feelings and indistinct perceptions to conceptualized emotions and ideas:

    It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses…. No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness…. [after about a week] I began to distinguish my sensations from each other…. [About a month later] my sensations had…become distinct, and my mind received every day additional ideas. (???11)

    The De Lacey family, a society in miniature, is the creature’s school for studying human language and human nature: from “my beloved cottagers…. I learned to admire their virtues, and to deprecate the vices of mankind,” for “benevolence and generosity were ever present before me, inciting within me a desire to become an actor in the busy scene where so many admirable qualities were called forth and displayed” (???15). When he realizes that stealing food from them increases their distress, he satisfies himself with nuts, roots, and berries; moreover, he succeeds in lightening their toil by secretly supplying them with firewood: “I observed with pleasure that he [Felix] did not go to the forest that day, but spent it in repairing the cottage and cultivating the garden” (???12). The creature has by now ascended high on the Godwinian scale of pleasure: at first he took delight in birdsong and moonlight, then in learning, and finally in sympathy with others???????all in accord with Godwin’s belief that the pleasures of “intellectual feeling…sympathy, and self-approbation” are nobler than the pleasures of the senses.10

    The scope of the creature’s education is broadened by reading: Werther stirs his private feelings, awakening “despondency and gloom”; Plutarch extends his thoughts to “new and mighty scenes of action” in the realms of public affairs; and portions of Paradise Lost reflect his own outcast state (???15). Volney’s Ruins, “a widely read compendium of meditations on history…strongly coloured by the author’s radical and deist views,”11 evokes a mixed reaction which is at the same time an oblique Godwinian criticism of society: “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?… For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing” (???13).

    The course of the creature’s education brings out another Godwinian concept central to the novel: “the actions and dispositions of mankind are the offspring of circumstances and events, and not of any original determination that they bring into the world.”12 Although some of the Romantics ascribe innate goodness to natural man, Mary follows her father in stressing the formative influence of “circumstances and events.” For example, the creature suggests that whereas Plutarch aroused and strengthened his desire for good, a less edifying volume might have had a different effect:

    I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the significance of those terms…. Induced by these feelings, I was of course led to admire peaceful lawgivers, Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus, in preference to Romulus and Theseus. The patriarchal lives of my protectors caused these impressions to take a firm hold on my mind; perhaps, if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations. (???15)

    And the benevolence learned from excellent models in literature and life does indeed turn to hatred and violence when the creature suffers social rejection: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous” (???10); “I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes the malignant devil” (???C).

    In the series of rejections that causes this demonic transformation (Frankenstein’s flight at the moment of the creature’s awakening, Felix’s driving him from the door of the cottage, the attempt on his life by the rustic whose child he has saved from drowning), in the series of crimes with which the creature responds to his rejection, and in the creature’s demand that Frankenstein create a female to be his mate (“My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal” [???17]), Mary follows her father and her husband in insisting on the causal connection between social acceptance and virtue, between social rejection and crime.13 The failure of some modern scholars to recognize this connection has led them to recast the creature as a Noble Outlaw, a champion of violence and rebellion,14 but such an interpretation is surely inconsistent with the creature’s own attitude toward his deeds: “Polluted by crimes, and torn with the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?” (???C).

    One final piece of extra-textual evidence that indicates how Mary intended her creature to be viewed has been generally overlooked. To a remark in a letter from Leigh Hunt, “Polyphemus…always appears to me a pathetic rather than a monstrous person, though his disappointed sympathies at last made him cruel,”15 Mary replied (April 6, 1819), “I have written a book in defence of Polypheme have I not?”16 The reference must be to the story of Polyphemus and Galatea as told in ???12 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In 1815, day by day with scarcely a break from April 8 to May 13, Mary had diligently applied herself to the translation of Ovid’s fables. Consider the parallels between the predicaments of Frankenstein’s creature and the giant, uncouth, one-eyed Polyphemus, who falls in love with a beautiful nymph. Disdained by Galatea, the Cyclops composes a lovelorn song: “But didst thou know me well, thou wouldest repine to have fled….”17 This plaint is echoed in the Monster’s words to Walton: “Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding” (???C). Preferring the handsome Acis, Galatea spurns the suit of Polyphemus, who, having one day seen them in each other’s arms, tosses a ton of rocks at Acis and thus buries him. When we recall the monster’s chagrin that “the gentle words of Agatha, and the animated smiles of the charming Arabian were not for [him],” his envy upon seeing the sleeping Justine (“Here…is one of those whose joy-imparting smiles are bestowed on all but me”), and, above all, his bitterness when Frankenstein and Elizabeth sought “enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which [he] was for ever barred” (?????? 13, 16, 24), we can understand why Mary Shelley spoke of her book as a “defence of Polypheme.”

    3. THE DEFENSE OF THE MODERN PROMETHEUS. A created being has certain rights and needs???????hence Mary Shelley’s defense of her Polyphemus. But the morality of Frankenstein’s endeavor is more open to question, as is that of Walton’s search for a northern passage and of scientific research in general. I find that, on the whole, Mary sanctions Frankenstein’s and Walton’s Promethean quests, but does so with vacillations and with a particular view of morality in mind. The fact that these scientific endeavors are alternately presented as culpable and laudable may stem from Mary’s intensely dualistic temperament: “I see things pretty clearly, but cannot demonstrate them. Besides, I feel the counter-arguments too strongly…. besides that, on some topics…I am far from making up my own mind…. I may distrust my own judgment too much???????be too indolent and too timid.”18

    It is perilous to assume that with respect to morality Mary was writing within an orthodox Christian framework. Her childhood had been spent in an atmosphere of determinism, and she was widely read in Godwin, Voltaire, Rousseau, Halbach, Volney, and other deistic or materialistic philosophes of the Enlightenment, whose spirit pervades Frankenstein so thoroughly that Aldiss terms it a “dark and atheistic work.”19 Godwin rejected “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” for he doubted that a man and his neighbor were likely to be of equal worth, and instead measured a person’s moral worth by his contribution to the general good. Thus he was able to declare morality an exact science concerned with “nothing else but a calculation of consequences.”20 Although Mary at times shows an insight into the non-quantifiable essence of morality, she generally agrees with Godwin that virtue is a contribution to the general welfare and that vice is an infraction of the social law. The quests of Frankenstein and Walton, therefore, should be judged in terms of their intended and actual effects. Mary is at pains to stress the humanitarian motives of both men. Frankenstein seeks the elixir of life in order to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death” (???2), while Walton dreams of conferring “inestimable benefit…on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole…or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet” (???01).

    With Mary’s dualistic temperament and moral biases in mind, let us examine her attitudes toward these scientific projects. At first she appears to be pointing an explicit moral against presumption. Frankenstein recounts his tale to Walton as an exemplum to dissuade the latter from continuing his Arctic expedition:

    “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me, let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!… You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did…. When I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale….” (???04)

    “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” (???4)

    Through statements such as these Mary is clearly endorsing the traditional taboo against seeking forbidden knowledge but with the important qualification that the search for knowledge is dangerous and unlawful only if it impairs the social affections:

    A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for…simple pleasures…then that study is certainly unlawful. (???4)

    Although Walton is usually assumed to be as guilty as Frankenstein of sacrificing human ties for knowledge, he seems to me less culpable. After all, he writes home regularly to his sister, he expresses great longing for a friend, and he shows concern for the welfare of his crew, even to the point of yielding to their entreaties to abandon the enterprise. Nevertheless the alienating connotations of ice and snow, of sailing farther and farther away from human habitation, do tacitly impugn the morality of his mission.21

    This emphasis on human feelings is traceable to the writings of Godwin and his disciple Shelley. Godwin is commonly associated with the stern rationalism of the first edition of Political Justice (1793), but the subsequent editions of this work (1796, 1798) along with his novels show a revaluation of the importance of feeling, largely because of his own brief, happy marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft. Thus he argues that “Even knowledge, and the enlargement of the intellect, are poor, when unmixed with sentiments of benevolence and sympathy,” and that the exercise of “domestic and private affections” is a prerequisite for effectively displaying benevolence in society at large.22 This humanistic ethic, as Goldberg points out, is quite prevalent among Mary’s contemporaries, notably Shelley, Byron, and Paine: in their hierarchy of values love or sympathy is a higher good than abstract knowledge, and their criterion for establishing this priority is human, not divine.23

    The lesson of Frankenstein’s tale to Walton is thus that man should avoid temptation of knowledge lest it lead to estrangement from family and society, but it turns out that after implanting this idea so firmly in our minds, Mary Shelley has Frankenstein completely reverse himself???????a crucial point that scholars have generally overlooked???????in his exhortation to Walton’s mutinous crew:

    “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species…. And now, behold, with the first…mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away…; ye need not have come thus far, and dragged your captain to shame and defeat, merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! be men, or be more than men…. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return, as heroes who have fought and conquered.” (???C)

    The sudden bravado of this speech is soon negated by Frankenstein’s dying words???????”Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries”???????and then partly reconfirmed!: I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”

    What are we, to make of these divergent pronouncements? Are they intended to reflect Frankenstein’s confused state of mind as he nears death, or do they mirror the author’s indecisiveness?

    The same ambiguity of conception afflicts Frankenstein’s role as “the modern Prometheus.” On the one hand, some of his utterances imply guilt for overstepping human limitations: he feels as if his “soul were grappling with a palpable enemy” (???3); he calls himself the “living monument of presumption and rash ignorance” (???7); he grieves over the work of his “thrice-accursed hands” as he beholds the graves of William and Justine, “the first hapless victims of [his] unhallowed arts” (???8); he shudders at “the mad enthusiasm that hurried [him] on to the creation of [his] hideous enemy” (???21); and he regards the making of the second creature as an “unearthly occupation” (???18). On the other hand, these expressions of mea culpa seem merely perfunctory against the novel’s general cast of scientific naturalism: Frankenstein speaks of “the mechanism of my being” (???3); he considers man a complex and wonderful animal (???4); and Mary’s Introduction contains an obviously deistic phrase: “the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”24 Thus it seems that Mary Shelley on the whole defends her “modern Prometheus.” If the consequences of his experiment were disastrous, his goal of discovering “the secrets of heaven and earth” was nonetheless legitimate for a man of science.

    Although scholars tend to assume that Mary shares Byron’s and Shelley’s conception of Prometheus as the adversary of love, the benefactor and suffering champion of mankind,25 I believe that she focuses on the often overlooked role of Prometheus as the maker of natural man and hence a prototype for any maker of artificial man. In classical mythology this Titan is a deeply enigmatic figure, acting both as lawful creator and as usurper of divine prerogative. To the Greeks, notably Aeschylus, he was Prometheus pyrphoros, the fire-bringer; to the Romans, however, he was Prometheus plasticator, the creator of man; by the second or third century the two roles were fused, “so that the fire stolen by Prometheus was also the fire of life with which he animated his man of clay.”26

    Although Frankenstein’s animation of an artificial being is sufficient to account for his epithet “the modern Prometheus,” there is a highly probable source for the phrase itself. I agree with Mario Praz, who suggests that Frankenstein may be an answer to La Mettrie’s call for “un nouveau Prom???th???e.” Praz believes that “the similarity of the Frankenstein theme to the attempts made in France to create an artificial man may not be due to mere coincidence,” and such scholars as Cohen, Ebeling, and Swoboda, less cautious than Praz, emphasize the work of 17th-century horologists and mechanists as precedents for Frankenstein’s project.27 The makers of automata and experimenters in spontaneous generation saw themselves as gaining legitimate control over nature rather than impiously delving into the mysteries of God. Their experiments, which indicated that the causes of all organic and inorganic developments were to be sought within nature, not in God or chance, were immensely important to the 18th-century materialist philosophes. In 1740 Abraham Trembley discovered that when a certain kind of fresh-water polyp is cut into pieces, each piece becomes a new polyp. Julien Offray de La Mettrie used the self -regenerative property of the polyp to support his doctrine of materialism: if an animal’s soul or vital principle is divisible with its body, then the same might be true of the human soul???????i.e., man has no soul apart from his material organization. After rejecting “immateriality” or “spirituality” as a final cause, La Mettrie postulated that “matter possesses intrinsically the causes of its activity and organization.”28

    Le Mettrie’s materialist ideas culminate in Man a Machine (i.e., L’Homme machine, 1748):

    [Man] is to the ape, and to the most intelligent animals, as the planetary pendulum of Huyghens is to a watch of Julien Leory. More instruments, more wheels and more springs were necessary to mark the movements of the planets than to mark or strike the hours; and Vaucanson, who needed more skill for making his flute player than for making his duck, would have needed still more to make a talking man, a mechanism no longer to be regarded as impossible, especially in the hands of another Prometheus [d’un nouveau Prom???th???e].29

    La Mettrie has singled out the leading mechanists. The French watchmaker Julien Leory excelled in the construction of large clocks and pendulums. In the application of mechanical laws he was superseded by Huyghens, the Dutch mathematician, physicist, and astronomer renowned for improving the telescope, developing the wave theory of light, and inventing a pendulum clock which was a miniature model of the solar system, measuring the movements of the planets. Yet he was eclipsed by the ingenuity and skill of Vaucanson, whose three celebrated automata???????a flute player, a drummer, and a digesting duck???????were shown throughout Europe and (in 1742) in London.30 The duck was a three-dimensional working model of the functions of eating, drinking, digesting, and swimming, with the internal mechanisms fully exposed to view. The wooden flutist played twelve melodies while moving the fingers, lips, and tongue. Vaucanson was as meticulous with the flute as with the flutist: he made 300 flutes before he was satisfied with the tonal quality. He even “cherished a secret ambition to make an artificial man. At the instigation of Lous XV he did indeed attempt to make a model with heart, veins, and arteries, but he died before completing his task.”31

    Frankenstein’s defiant, pro-science stance at the end of the novel is directly in line with the experimental outlook exhibited by the alchemists, the 17th-century mechanists and horologists, the 18th-century biologists, and most modern behavioral scientists and futurists. This is undoubtedly one reason why the novel has remained popular to this day. Though with part of her mind Mary Shelley may have endorsed Frankenstein’s warning against libido sciendi, she felt the claims of the opposite viewpoint strongly enough to reverse the moral at the end and, more subtly, to permeate the entire book with materialistic and mechanistic assumptions.

    Frankenstein, as we have seen, is a markedly dualistic work, full of contrasts, conflicts, and even contradictions. Mary’s hero vacillates between rejection and advocacy of modern Prometheanism in science. His creature is equally protean as he acts out his various roles of horrific monster, evil alter ego, and pitiful Polyphemus. I surmise that what makes Frankenstein so enduringly interesting is precisely the tension between the claims of reason and imagination that it exhibits. To borrow William Madden’s comment on Chaucer, Mary Shelley’s first novel is instinct with that duality which lies at the very heart of life.


    November 16, 2006

    How about Dr Genessier from the French classic Les Yeux sans visage (1960), he first doctor to attempt a face transplant?


    November 16, 2006


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