Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in relation to the debate between vitalism and materialism

Essay, 2016

8 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Nele de Fries (Author)


This essay will deal with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818. In this time a highly controversial discussion started about living entities containing a kind of vital spirit or not and how it is related to electricity and chemistry. The two main positions are on the one hand the vitalists and on the other the materialists. Vitalism consists of the supposition that every living source owns a vital force which brings life into them. It is supposed that a soul was infused into the body by a power like God via electricity and the fact that they contain this sort of energy makes them different from non- living entities. There has to be this force to regulate the physical functions within the living matter and with this statement, the vitalists, especially John Abernathy, tried to find a way to bring the bible and science together. The new spiritual flow based also on the allegations of Humphry Davy, whose persuasion was that electricity is a chemical reaction and the so called life force is similar to electricity. The power of life could be identified by researching dead matter. He described scientists as a kind of creative force which emphasizes the power that scientists get of knowledge. They could be able to reshape the natural world on the base that there is a contrast between organic and inorganic matter. This assumption then again is based on Luigi Aloisio Galvani who was an Italian philosopher and physician. He ran electrical experiments with dead frog’s legs and other executed animals and found out that they move when linked to electricity, they are producing convulsions. This led to the development of réanimation and defibrillators and is also an important invention for the content of Frankenstein. In contrast to this spiritual flow a public debate was fuelled by representatives of materialism. The materialistic theory is convinced that there is no vital force or spirit, living entities body is just a sort of machinery without anything divine in it. Because of this, they were also highly disparaged as blasphemists because their position includes the non- existence of God, so the body is nothing more than a physical organisation without any kind of soul. Pumped by the press, Sir William Lawrence, whose settled conviction was that consciousness and thoughts of human beings were only a product of their brains and not, as Abernathy writes, a device of vital force, the debate was fueled. Everything is based on material interactions and can be explained by physical rules and thoughts are only a cause of movements of particles in the brain.

Referring back to the origin of Frankenstein the author, Mary Shelley, was intimate with the work of Galvani, Davy and Lawrence. She started writing the novel in 1816 after having a nightmare about bringing her dead baby back to life. This led her to the idea of death and réanimation. After a stormy, rainy night at Lord Byron’s villa, where every one of the guests had to write a short ghost story for entertaining the others, she had another dream and as a cause of this, she started writing Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

The protagonist Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist studying philosophy and chemistry in Ingolstadt, has the idea of making people immortal by analysing the secret of life. By the base of his knowledge mixed of vitalistic and materialistic views and discoveries he collects dead body parts from graves and sticks them together to one. One night he brings his creature to life and is extremely horrified by his creation. Shocked by his experiment, he is returning to his family in Geneva, where he receives the message that his brother and adopted sister have been murdered. When meeting the monster again, it begs its creator to build him a female companion, because he doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

In order to prevent anything worse from happening, Victor starts to collect body parts from female corpses, but afraid of the possible consequences of a second monster, he destroys his work. Longing for revenge, the monster warns his maker that he will be there at his wedding night. Finally the creature kills Victor’s wife on the night in question and after all, even his father dies of grief. The protagonist swears to exact revenge on the monster, even if he has to go to the end of the world. In the end, Victor dies on a ship while sailing ever northward into the ice. Robert Walton, who is the captain of this ship and telling the story to his sister after returning to England, sees the monster weeping over Victor. The creature tells him about its life in hatred and compassion and that now that his creator has died, he is able to end its suffering. After all, it left the ship and hikes for the northernmost to die. This is the end of a story containing essential details of its time regarding to scientific achievements and the many related discussions. The aim of this essay is now to work out how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be interpreted as promoting either vitalist or materialist philosophy in relation to the author’s experiences with representatives of both sides and their influence on the story.

In the end I will explain my opinion after illuminating both positions, so which one is the most convincing to me and why I am persuaded of either vitalism or materialism. According to this I advance the thesis that Frankenstein advocates the philosophical stream of vitalism which is explained below. Also the theme of materialism is illuminated below.

Frankenstein contains a huge amount of reasons that indicate the position of this book supporting the vitalist philosophy. First of all, the young Viktor Frankenstein read many texts about this topic as an infant (“In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa”; “[...] my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight [...]”), but more interesting and convincing for the theory of vitalism is Frankenstein’s monsters personality, its features and its great rhetorical skills. The literary figure is able to think autonomous and also to question itself, so it obviously must own some kind of moral (“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart, and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it.”). This leads to the supposition that it might have a soul or other sort of spiritual power, in fact it is a it is, even when it dies it shows strong emotions.

living entity with feelings and emotions, no matter how cruel or horrifying (“You hate me; but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself. I look on the hands which executed the deed; I think on the heart in which the imagination of it was conceived, and long for the moment when these hands will meet my eyes, when that imagination will haunt my thoughts no more.”) It has definitely an understanding or a sense for its and other people’s emotions and all emotions it experiences affect it, even if it is not able to interpret them in the right way (“All men hate the wretched; how then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, they creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.”) Frankenstein himself thought that his monster is restricted by the lack of human qualities like speaking or even having feelings like experiencing delight and satisfaction.


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Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in relation to the debate between vitalism and materialism
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Nele de Fries (Author), 2016, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in relation to the debate between vitalism and materialism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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