Too Much Life Romantic monstrosity in Frankenstein.

Photo by Denise Gigante

What makes a monster monstrous? Some define monstrosity as physical deformity. Others see it in cultural terms as a deviation from expectations of normality. But in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and in the Romantic age more generally, monstrosity came to be conceived as an excess of vitality. Exactly what life was, however, was a matter of intense debate. Theories held that an electric or electromagnetic force, perhaps a bodily power analogous to it, was responsible for vitality. Some suspected the force to be material. Others believed its nature was immaterial. The physician William Lawrence, who attended the hypochondriacal husband of Mary Shelley, believed that the cause or principle of life should be left for theologians to debate; as far as science was concerned, he argued, life was a matter of physical organization. But the intellectual atmosphere of the decades immediately before and after the turn of the nineteenth century was too experimental and imaginatively ambitious to leave things at that. The question of what constituted life was a crux upon which different branches of knowledge converged. Aesthetics in a unique way crossed paths with science, and when it did, a new form of monstrosity emerged.

In a radical rethinking of the age-old concept of the monstrous, a monster became conceived as a phenomenon of excessive, self-propagating vitality. In her novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley captured this Zeitgeist in the form of a creature who has become the paramount monster, not only of the period in which she lived but of the modern age. The poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom both Percy and Mary Shelley admired and whose poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Mary quotes in her novel, defined the principle of life as “the power which discloses itself from within as a principle of unity in the many.”1 This was in 1816, the same year that Shelley began Frankenstein. As Coleridge recognized, his definition of life as a power capable of bringing about unity from within was the biological equivalent of the principle of beauty in art conceptualized as organic form. Also the same year, the essayist and philosopher William Hazlitt (a friend of Coleridge and acquaintance of the Shelleys) claimed that genuine art must contain a “living principle,” a kind of self-disclosing, animating power associated with organic form.2 In Frankenstein, Shelley’s protagonist selects all the most beautiful body parts he can find to animate with a living principle, though as it turns out the beautiful instantaneously becomes monstrous when the creature—the literal version of art conceived as organic form—shows signs of actual animation.

What makes a monster monstrous? 

Frankenstein considers his creation a monster when, and only when, it comes to life. Day after day, he returns compulsively to his task, seeing his anatomical assemblage in various stages of completion without running away from it as if it were a monster. True, he has some distaste for the work. “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave,” he asks, “or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay.” But even when the body of his creature is complete, he retains so much enthusiasm for it that he expects to earn the lasting gratitude of humankind for imbuing it with life. Things change instantly and irreversibly, though, when the dull yellow eye of the creature opens, signaling an autonomous and seemingly threatening vitality. “I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body,” he admits, “but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room.” Any hopes that Victor might have had that once his creature came to life his vitality would fade, and gradually die away on its own, go unrealized. Shelley describes these feelings in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel: “He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.”3 But of course no such thing happens. Once brought to life, Frankenstein’s creature remains alive, and in his creator’s mind, overwhelmingly so.

An important theoretical orientation for monstrosity at the intersection of natural philosophy and aesthetics (where we find Frankenstein’s creature) is Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgment. In the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” Kant considers the aesthetic experience of the sublime and argues that for a judgment of sublimity to be pure, it cannot be connected to instrumentality or to purpose, whether natural or artistic. Thus, for example, “we must point to the sublime not in products of art (e.g., buildings, columns, etc.), where both the form and the magnitude are determined by a human purpose, nor in natural things whose very concept carries with it a determinate purpose (e.g., animals with a known determination in nature), but rather in crude nature (and even in it only insofar as it carries with it no charm, nor any emotion aroused by actual danger), that is, merely insofar as crude nature contains magnitude.” Crude nature appears in Shelley’s novel in the kind of arctic expanses Robert Walton sees from his ship and the lofty and profound mountain ravines where Victor argues with his creature. Such landscapes are sublime in producing an idea of unbounded magnitude. Magnitude can veer out of sublimity and into monstrosity, however, should it become attached to purpose.

Monstrosity results, according to Kant, when there is a purpose but when that purpose is defeated, exploded from within as it were, by the power of its own magnitude, “An object is monstrous if by its magnitude it nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept,” he writes. Kant is here relying on a natural philosophical understanding of the world as self-generating (epigenetic) and self-shaping. He draws on the work of the German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, whose treatise on the Bildungstrieb (formative drive) was vastly influential in conceptualizing life in vitalist terms as power. He refers directly to Blumenbach’s notion of the Bildungstrieb, but while the concept of formation remains stable (Bildung), Kant distinguishes in the drive (Trieb) a quasi-transcendental “formative impulse” and a quasi-physical “formative force.”4 The formative impulse is something like an Aristotelian first or moving cause that initiates the process whereby matter organizes itself. On the other hand, “the merely mechanical formative force” exists throughout nature, including the substance of organisms that have already become organized. Although the formative force mechanically carries out the self-shaping processes set in motion by the formative impulse, it is itself the greater power and by implication the greater danger: it is self-propagating, and should it become detached from the originating impulse, has the potential to get out of hand.  The formal impulse is always teleological, but the formative force can in the event of various accidents (including the intervention of someone like Victor Frankenstein) defeat natural purposiveness. When this happens, the result is monstrous.

In a radical rethinking of the ageold concept of the monstrous, a monster became conceived as a phenomenon of excessive, self-propagating vitality.

Victor Frankenstein’s family partakes of this same European culture in which life was conceptualized as power. Popular science provided parlor entertainment in the eighteenth century, and before Victor leaves Geneva to attend college in Ingolstadt, he observes the deleterious effect of Robert Boyle’s air pump, a mechanism designed to produce a vacuum under a glass bell jar, on small animals. When creatures inside the jar were deprived of oxygen through the operations of the pump, they keeled over dead, leading some to suppose that the mysterious vital principle resided in air. Victor experiments with electricity during a thunderstorm, evoking the widespread intellectual curiosity about the nature of electrical power and the more sensational question of whether it had anything to do with life. In the 1780s, the natural philosopher Luigi Galvani popularized the notion of “animal electricity,” spurring a wave of experimentation on animals, body parts, and recently deceased human corpses with this supposedly organic power. In England, the chemist Humphry Davy lectured to popular audiences on the phenomena of electrochemistry and “electromotion.” In this context, Victor dreams of bestowing a “spark of being” into lifeless matter, and though there is nothing to indicate that the principle of life he discovers is electric, filmic adaptations of the novel may be forgiven for portraying the creature’s animation as an electrical event.5 Early in his quest, Victor had sought the principle of life in the form of an alchemical elixir, but at Ingolstadt he encounters a more up-to-date chemistry professor whose after-dinner conversation sounds much like Davy’s lectures on chemistry. The purpose of chemistry, Davy had explained, was to study the “active powers” of nature and to demonstrate “the particular exertions of those powers.”6 Victor combines his knowledge of chemistry with knowledge from other branches of science to discover the greatest of all active powers, the power of animation. Yet when the vitality of his creature actively asserts itself beyond the idea or concept to which his creator had originally confined it—namely a demonstration or experiment, a human assemblage successfully animated in his lab—it appears monstrous.

Frankenstein considers his creation a monster when, and only when, it comes to life.

A public debate at the Royal College of Surgeons in London over the nature and possible existence of a principle of life was held during the years between 1814 and 1819 when Frankenstein was produced. Percy Shelley attended the debate, and it no doubt influenced the discussion between him, Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori to which Mary Shelley refers in her 1831 introduction to Frankenstein as the novel’s inspiration. The principal participants in that debate were Percy’s physician William Lawrence and Lawrence’s former instructor John Abernethy. Abernethy tentatively endorsed the vitalism of his teacher, the physiologist John Hunter, who was Blumenbach’s contemporary and an influence on the latter. Hunter was the prime mover, not only of Romantic-era vitalism but of the theory explaining monstrous forms of nature as manifestations of excess vital power. In responding to Abernethy, Lawrence scoffed at the idea that a higher power responsible for vitality—whether one calls it a soul, a physiological fluid, or an immaterial force—could be the subject of legitimate science. As far as Lawrence was concerned, life was defined physiologically as the relation of the functions of the different organs constituting an organism. A vital principle, such as the one Hunter had believed to exist in the blood, “could never have been brought to light by the labours of the anatomist and physiologist,” Lawrence insisted, since “[a]n immaterial and spiritual being could not have been discovered amid the blood and filth of the dissecting-room.”7 But this is precisely the filth in which Frankenstein discovers the principle of life. Indeed, given recent developments in stem cell technology and bioengineering, Shelley’s landmark work of science fiction is looking less fictional every day, and the grounds for Lawrence’s skepticism less real.

Victor speaks of the lab in which his creature comes to life as his “workshop of filthy creation,” and this kind of filth (organic matter detached from natural purpose) characterizes the creature in his very essence. He claims that “when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened.” Elsewhere, he complains of “the filthy dæmon to whom I had given life,” and while “daemon” can read as archaic orthography for a Christianized demon, the creature is also a classical daemon in his own right: a supernatural being somewhere between a god and a man. He is greater than human, or at least something greater than the concept of human can contain. Frankenstein recurs to the same language when he takes up his instruments to produce a female creature: “It was indeed a filthy process in which I was engaged.”8 Like a modern Prometheus, he has grasped the spark of life from the exalted regions of supernatural study and brought it down into the charnel house of experimental science, setting it loose in organic matter.

Monstrosity results, according to Kant, when there is a purpose but when that purpose is defeated, exploded from within as it were, by the power of its own magnitude.

In his notes on monsters in the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, John Hunter posits a principle of monstrosity, which we may think of as a force of vitality run amuck. It is not clear whether Hunter, at the time he was writing, realized the paradigm shift he was enabling to a vitalist conception of monstrosity. He starts out from a more traditional understanding of monstrosity as deformity, and he identifies different categories of monsters. These include organisms with a disproportioned or abnormal arrangement of parts, and those that have too many or too few parts. “Nature being pretty constant in the kind and number of the different parts peculiar to each species,” he observes, “we call everything that deviates from that uniformity a ‘monster,’ whether [it occurin] crystallization, vegetation, or animalization.” But Hunter is thinking about deviation in terms less structural than dynamic, less anatomical than biologically developmental. The devious principle of monstrosity must be sought not in the organic product but the process, not in the animal but in “animalization” (a term originating in the eighteenth century that refers to an animal as it is developing). “There must be some principle for those deviations from the regular course of Nature,” Hunter speculates, and he calls this the “great principle of monstrosity.”

Hunter’s principle of monstrosity is analogous in its operations across the three major divisions of matter—animal, vegetable, and mineral. Mineral-monsters emerge in the process of crystallization, the result of “a defect in the formation, the first setting out being wrong, and [the formation] going on in the same [wrong] line.” Vegetable-monsters also occur in the process of development when “the vegetable works up itself ” or else when the fully formed vegetable generates new parts. “If a natural branch decays, or is destroyed,” Hunter writes, it may happen that “two or three shall arise in its place, all of which are so many monsters.’” Vegetables produce the greatest number of monsters because vegetable matter is continuously producing new parts. Monstrosities occur in animals similarly during the period of embryogenesis when the parts are forming or (in the case of animals capable of regenerating new parts) during the process of regeneration. Lizards may become monstrous in the production of a double tail, for instance, and a head injury may cause a buck to sprout malformed or supernumerary antlers. A creature becomes monstrous, we might say, when its formative power breaks through a momentary gap in its substance and asserts itself in an unexpected manner, twisting or shaping matter to its own ends.

The danger to the natural order of things, once monstrosity becomes conceived vitalistically, is that (in Hunter’s words) “such monsters, once formed, have the principle of propagating their monstrosity.”9 Before his creature comes to life, Frankenstein contemplates with delight the idea that a new species may propagate itself from the “spark of being” he has bestowed. But once the “filthy mass” begins to move, the idea of its self-propagation becomes frightful. The vectors of the creature’s self-propagation extend temporally, as he prolongs his own life by discovering sources of food and shelter, for example, and spatially too, in the possibility that the creature will produce more creatures like himself with the help of a female companion. Victor dreads that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”10 The object he had labored so obsessively to bring to life has become, in Victor’s eyes, a source of runaway vitality that he can no longer control or even apprehend.

His ongoing vitality shows no signs of diminishing.

Let us conclude by recalling the definition of monstrosity we began with, from Kant’s discussion of magnitude with respect to the sublime: an object is monstrous if by its magnitude it nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept. Perhaps Frankenstein had the sublime in mind when he designed his creature as larger than life. The latter is human in shape, only greater in size—taller even than Charles Byrne, the seven-foot “Irish Giant,” whose skeleton Hunter obtained after Byrne’s death for his collection of natural monstrosities (and which may be seen today at the Hunterian Museum in London). The creature is likewise greater in strength and agility, able to scale mountain precipices and glaciers, and greater in speed. “I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed,” Victor relates. He can subsist on a diet that would not sustain a human, and he can bear greater extremities of weather. “Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself,” he warns his creator, “my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple.”11 Spying the creature from his ship, Robert Walton tells us that he has seen “the shape of a man,” but to Victor Frankenstein he is too much of a man. He has nullified any purpose that may have defined him, and to some degree we might say that he has exploded Shelley’s purpose too, emerging from the narrative and taking on a life of his own, in film and an array of other media. His ongoing vitality shows no signs of diminishing. Particularly now in the millennium of the posthuman, he looms large, not only as an icon of monstrosity but also as a symbol for what may become of the human presumption to repurpose nature.

1. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 14 vols., Shorter Works and Fragments, ed. H. J. Jackson and J. R. de J. Jackson, vol. 11, pt. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 510.

2. William Hazlitt, “On Gusto,” The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Madness (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1817), 22.

3. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism, ed. J. Paul Hunter (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), 33, 36, and 168.

4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 109 and 311.

5. Shelley, Frankenstein, 35.

6. The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, ed. John Davy, 9 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1839), 2: 307-26 (312).

7. William Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons (Salem: Foote and Brown, 1828), 18.

8. Shelley, Frankenstein, 34, 50, 103, and 118.

9. John Hunter, Essays and Observations on Natural History, Anatomy, Physiology, Psychology and Geology, 2 vols. (London: John van Voorst, 1861), 1: 239-240, 242-243, and 246.

10. Shelley, Frankenstein, 119.

11. Shelley, Frankenstein, 67-68.

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