Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Chapter 4

Mary Shelley takes pains in this and succeeding paragraphs to point out the unseemly and "horrible" nature of Frankenstein's endeavor.

For many Christian readers of the time the intact body would be reunited with the soul following purification in Purgatory and upon the Last Judgment. To perform anatomies, dissections, and autopsies mutilated the body. Such scientific exploration was generally limited to the cadavers of murderers, suicides, and other felons. Dismemberment while alive was reserved for regicides or attempted regicides such as Damiens, who was hanged until nearly dead, drawn (his arms and legs separated slowly), and finally quartered, his parts strewn, his head put on a pike. The body of a common murderer might, after being hanged, be suspended in an iron cage. Suicides were not buried in holy ground. These punishments only proved to many readers the natural sanctity of the human form as God's last and most wonderful creation.

Shelley intended Frankenstein as a "ghost" story that would inspire "horror" in its readers, and dissections helped to do that. We should note that many of those readers, including Percy and Claire Clairmont, believed in ghosts and specters.  

If we are to appreciate the macabre "horror" Shelley means to induce in her first audiences, we must imagine just how appalling was the spectacle of Frankenstein's prowling about churchyards and charnel houses, stealing parts, which would include eyeballs, skin, hair, and teeth, studying decaying bodies and the worm and maggot colonies they engendered for indications of how to proceed. Even Gericault's means to painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by collecting body parts and studying cadavers disgusted some. How much more so Frankenstein's endeavor, which Shelley goes out of her way to render even more ghastly by having him collect parts rather than simply resuscitate an entire cadaver.

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