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Was Mary Shelley?s novel a warning to solitary scientists?

by admin November 29, 2010

When most people think of Frankenstein, they think of the large, green, somewhat dim-looking fellow with bolts on the side of his neck. Others who delve a little deeper believe that Frankenstein was author Mary Shelley’s warning about the dangers of new scientific discoveries. And a rare few, like Dr. Jan Golinski, chair of the department of history and humanities at the University of New Hampshire, think that Shelley was trying to forewarn future generations of what could happen when scientists forsake normal human relationships.

“[Shelly] issues a stark warning against the dangers that could follow when a man of science turns his back on social and familial ties,” he said.

In order to explain his interpretation of Frankenstein, Golinski discussed the novel in a historical context.

“Mary Shelley’s novel reflects ideas of the enlightenment, about the connection between sociability and virtue,” said Golinski, adding that “many thinkers of the 18th century declared that participation in society is an ethical imperative and a demand of human nature.”

The presentation was part of an ongoing series entitled Science and Its Publics hosted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs. The series explores the relationship between scientists and the public, and how this translates in to knowledge.

Golinski’s lecture, Frankenstein in the public sphere: Science and the virtue of sociability in the British Enlightenment, examined an often overlooked theme in Shelley’s masterpiece.

“Shelley was responding to the situation in her own time and place which had witnessed something of a crisis in the epistemic virtue of sociability,” said Golinski. He went on to explain that for centuries sociability served to keep scientists in check. “Scientists’ socialization should give them a sense of their wider obligations to society,” he said.

But the enlightenment changed everything, according to Golinsky, who said that many writers during that period, like Edmund Burke, questioned the true value of sociability.

This worried people like Shelley, which is what Dr. Golinski thinks drove her to write the character of Victor Frankenstein the way she did.

“One of Frankenstein’s characteristics is that he turns his back on his family and society in general,” he said. “He breaks off relations with his fiancée and other family members. He isolates himself from his friends and fellow students.”

The monster created by Victor in the novel is therefore Shelley’s form of punishment for this behavior. “The novel gives us an image of the anti-social man of science whose creature is both the offspring of this abnormal solitude and the means by which Frankenstein is punished for it,” Golinski explained.

The academic believes Shelly’s text is still so popular today because the idea of the virtue of sociability was one of the main themes in the novel; it resonates with our current moral dilemmas.

“The novel is still pertinent because it reflected the birth of modern scientific institutions with their associated moral quandaries,” he said. “To that extent, Frankenstein’s monster is still living among us.”

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