Despite being terrifying and somewhat supernatural, the novel Frankenstein was declared by some readers as having
‘an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times’.
The scientific investigations into Galvanism and other medical processes at the time the novel was written made many people uneasy, including Shelley herself. Physicians often categorised deaths in two states, ‘absolute death’ and ‘incomplete death’. The latter of which a person could be saved and restored to full health, and the former of which was a true death which could not be cured. There are many ‘incomplete deaths’ within the story, such as when Victor collapses because of nervous illness, describes himself as ‘lifeless’ and is then restored to life by Clerval.
Shelley once talked about how her son was saved by a physician from an illness.
‘By the skill of the physician he was once reanimated after the process of death had actually commenced, and he lived four days after that time’
This suggestion that the process of death could be reversed show that many of Shelley’s own experiences and tragedies helped to form the idea that the lines between life and death were often blurred, and that perhaps even some dead could be reanimated. There seemed to be a great cultural anxiety surrounding these medical advancements, something which is echoed throughout the entire novel.
Leading on from this, Victor Frankenstein’s assertion that ‘life and death appeared to me ideal bounds’ was perhaps shared by some of the more ethically dubious physicians in the time the novel was written. Luigi Galvani in particular, performed experiments on the cadavers of hanged criminals, to which he had some success in getting certain body parts to move in response to the electric jolts. The conversations regarding life and death between physicians became so controversial that physicians who publicly held controversial views were often asked to resign.
Victor explains in the novel:
‘I collected bones from charnel-houses…The dissecting room and the slaughter house furnished many of my materials’.
Victor’s collection of body parts from these places is how he obtained his materials to create his monster. During the period in which the novel was written, it was only condemned criminals that could be requisitioned for body parts after their death.
The demand for cadavers was so high that so called ‘resurrectionists’ would exhume bodies from church graveyards and sell them onto anatomy schools for a significant profit. On more than one occasion people were actually murdered because the value of their bodies was so high. Bodies of the poor and those in workhouses eventually became targets, and in 1832 the Anatomy act was passed to allow the claiming of all the corpses of those that worked in the workhouses, and charitable hospitals. In addition to this, surgery was often performed on live, screaming and conscious patients during which medical students could observe the procedures.
Both the fear of being dissected alive and the fear of Galvanic experiments is something that was reflected in John Galt’s short story The Buried Alive published in 1821. The narrative follows a young man’s paralysis and his burial (during which is he still alive although to others he appears dead). The story is told in the first person as the young man is then exhumed by grave robbers, shocked with electric jolts and eventually regains control of all his faculties after a scientist begins to dissect him in front of a group of medical students.
John Galt’s short can be read here: (https://archive.org/stream/steamboat00galtgoog#page/n176/mode/2up)
All of this contextual information surrounding medicine, the body and it’s value, form central themes in Shelley’s novel. Victor’s Frankenstein’s monster is composed of these parts, of which all either belonged to criminals, or were stolen by criminals (it is possible he bought materials from so called resurrectionists). This in a sense foreshadows the criminal actions of the monster itself… If all of his body parts had some sort of criminal association, then it would seem that the monster was quite literally a criminal before he had even committed criminal acts. The irony is that Victor eventually destroys his own body in the creation of his monster. He is described as pale and exhausted when putting the creature together, and eventually his own body succumbs to the extreme conditions he experiences chasing the monster through the wintery conditions in the latter part of the book.