Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Ch. 2

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But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became their disciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the eighteenth century; but while I followed the routine of education in the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self-taught with regard to my favourite studies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child's blindness, added to a student's thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptorsw I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stoneh and the elixir of life;h but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors.d And thus for a time I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling, like an unadept, a thousand contradictory theories and floundering desperately in a very slough of multifariousw knowledge, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again changed the currentd of my ideas. When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm.(d) It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism,d which was at once new and astonishing to me. All that he said threw greatly into the shade Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, the lords of my imagination; but by some fatality the overthrow of these men disinclined me to pursue my accustomed studies. It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever be known. All that had so long engaged my attention suddenly grew despicable. By one of those caprices of the mind which we are perhaps most subject to in early youth, I at once gave up my former occupations, set down natural history and all its progeny as a deformed and abortive creation,d and entertained the greatest disdain for a would-be science which could never even step within the threshold of real knowledge. In this mood of mind I betook myself to the mathematics and the branches of study appertaining to that science as being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.

Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin. When I look back, it seems to me as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my lifeh—the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me. Her victory was announced by an unusual tranquillity and gladness of soul which followed the relinquishing of my ancient and latterly tormenting studies. It was thus that I was to be taught to associate evil with their prosecution, happiness with their disregard.

It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable lawsd had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.

X [w] preceptors

Teachers or tutors.

X [h] philosopher's stone

Religion

The elusive philosopher's stone was a tangible expression of secret knowledge that could benefit oneself and/or the world. The stone would make possible the knowledge that led to the deepest understanding of life. It would also reveal the elixir of life, which promised physical immortality and immortal youth, such as Adam and Eve had or the life spans of the first men, such as Noah.…

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X [h] elixir of life;

Religion

Through one means or another, the knowledge of how physically to achieve a deathless life, thereby escaping God's condemnation of Adam and Eve and each one of their descendants through all time to death.

X [d] instructors.

Writing & Reading

In the 1818 edition appears this paragraph: 

The natural phenomena that take place every day before our eyes did not escape my examinations. Distillation, and the wonderful effects of steam, processes of which my favourite authors were utterly ignorant, excited my astonishment; but my utmost wonder was engaged by some experiments on an airpump, which I saw employed by a gentleman we were in the habit of seeing. 

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X [w] multifarious

Diverse and perhaps contradictory.

X [d] current

Writing & Reading

In another work we would assume that "current of my ideas" imaged water but here, just before a massive storm and the introduction of "galvanism," it's likely that Shelley wants the electrical image of charged particles (ideas) to prevail.

X [(d)] When I was about fifteen years old we had ret…

Illustration.

X [d] galvanism,

Mind

Electricity produced through chemical action, though he means it in the more limited sense described below in connection with "animal spirits." (See the note earlier in this chapter on "secrets of heaven and earth.")

But the term and the man for whom it is named, Luigi Galvani, along with his colleague Alessandro Volta, stand at the center of the most charged scientific debate of t…

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X [d] all its progeny as a deformed and abortive cr…

Writing & Reading

A prophetic metaphor for the novel and likely a reflection of Mary's own deep anxieties. (See Ellen Moers and Anne K. Mellor.)

In February of 1815 Mary Godwin gave birth to her and Shelley's first child, a premature girl, who, unnamed, lived only two weeks. In January of 1816 she gave birth to William, and during the later writing of …

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X [h] the guardian angel of my life

Religion

The guardian angel is not a Christian figure but returns us to the "genius" or tutelary (protective) deity in Greek mythology that attends our birth and conveys us out of the world (see the earlier note on "genius").

Mary Shelley may have learned independently or from her husband or one of their friends, the learned Thomas Love Peacock, about Zoroastrianism, which derives from the …

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X [d] immutable laws

Mind

Unchangeable laws, the result of "Destiny." 

Mary Shelley conceives a world that is not Judeo-Christian, with its emphasis on free will, so much as Greek and Zoroastrian, as they are filtered through Enlightenment scientific materialism. Central is destiny or what at the time was called the doctrine of necessity or determinism. Necessity in the sense of cause and effect ruled the p…

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