Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Ch. 3

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Partly from curiosity and partly from idleness, I went into the lecturing room, which M. Waldman entered shortly after. This professor was very unlike his colleague. He appeared about fifty years of age, but with an aspect expressive of the greatest benevolence;h a few grey hairs covered his temples, but those at the back of his head were nearly black. His person was short but remarkably erect and his voice the sweetest I had ever heard. He began his lecture by a recapitulation of the history of chemistry and the various improvements made by different men of learning, pronouncing with fervour the names of the most distinguished discoverers. He then took a cursory view of the present state of the science and explained many of its elementary terms. After having made a few preparatory experiments, he concluded with a panegyric upon modern chemistry,h the terms of which I shall never forget: "The ancient teachers of this science," said he, "promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens;h they have discovered how the blood circulates,h and the nature of the air we breathe.h They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows."h

Such were the professor's words—rather let me say such the words of the fate—enounced to destroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keysd were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.

I closed not my eyes that night. My internal being was in a state of insurrection and turmoil; I felt that order would thence arise, but I had no power to produce it. By degrees, after the morning's dawn, sleep came. I awoke, and my yesternight's thoughts were as a dream. There only remained a resolution to return to my ancient studies and to devote myself to a science for which I believed myself to possess a natural talent. On the same day I paid M. Waldman a visit. His manners in private were even more mild and attractive than in public, for there was a certain dignity in his mien during his lecture which in his own house was replaced by the greatest affability and kindness. I gave him pretty nearly the same account of my former pursuits as I had given to his fellow professor. He heard with attention the little narration concerning my studies and smiled at the names of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, but without the contempt that M. Krempe had exhibited. He said that "These were men to whose indefatigable zeal modern philosophers were indebted for most of the foundations of their knowledge. They had left to us, as an easier task, to give new names and arrange in connected classifications the facts which they in a great degree had been the instruments of bringing to light. The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind." I listened to his statement, which was delivered without any presumption or affectation, and then added that his lecture had removed my prejudices against modern chemists; I expressed myself in measured terms, with the modesty and deference due from a youth to his instructor, without letting escape (inexperience in life would have made me ashamed) any of the enthusiasm which stimulated my intended labours. I requested his advice concerning the books I ought to procure.

"I am happy," said M. Waldman, "to have gained a disciple; and if your application equals your ability, I have no doubt of your success. Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be madeh; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study; but at the same time, I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics." He then took me into his laboratory and explained to me the uses of his various machines, instructing me as to what I ought to procure and promising me the use of his own when I should have advanced far enough in the science not to derange their mechanism. He also gave me the list of books which I had requested, and I took my leave.

Thus ended a day memorable to me; it decided my future destiny.

X [h] He appeared about fifty years of age, but wit…

People

It's probable that this description, reinforced by the more or less chiming name, Waldman, refers to Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, whose political philosophy is inseparable from "benevolence" and who was born in 1756, making him at the time of her writing just over fifty.

Mary's father was until she met Shelley the most important figure in her life (see Introduction). 

X [h] modern chemistry,

Science & Technology

For Frankenstein the phrase can be reduced to one man, Sir Humphry Davy, the brilliant, physically courageous young scientist at least one of whose dazzling lectures Godwin had taken Mary to hear. Davy, himself an aspiring poet, links science with literature and connects the second-generation Romantics, the Shelleys, Byron, Peacock, and Hunt, with Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and Scott, all of whom knew Davy. …

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X [h] ascend into the heavens;

Science & Technology

Shelley means ascents accomplished through the development of balloons dependent on gas, hydrogen, or heated air, exploits and accounts that enthrall the English and French public in the last part of the 18th c. and beginning decades of the 19th.

The period in which Frankenstein is growing up and working spans a better-than-Babel assault on the heavens. Ballooning began in France i…

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X [h] how the blood circulates,

Science & Technology

William Harvey, 1578-1657, English physician and anatomist, provided the first full account of how the blood circulates. But the more relevant question in the period in which Mary Shelley is writing concerns the “how” of the heart: what makes it and the rest of what we now call the autonomic nervous system work, all of that apparatus that includes heart rate, digestion, respiration, pupil dilation, and sexual arousal. What, for instance, causes the heart to pump some seventy-two times a minute?

X [h] the air we breathe.

Science & Technology

Joseph Priestley, 1733-1804, shares credit with Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1797) for the discovery of oxygen in 1774 and also the discovery of the carbon cycle, the reciprocal balance in the atmosphere of oxygen and carbon. Lavoisier, a wealthy French aristocrat and one of the infamous tax collectors under King Louis, explained respiration as a form of combustion. He demonstra…

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X [h] the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake,…

Science & Technology

The thunders of heaven refer also to Benjamin Franklin's experiments with electricity and the earthquake to new, more potent explosive materials.

The "mock the invisible world with its own shadows" is obscure but may refer to the greatest astronomer of the 18…

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X [d] various keys

Writing & Reading

A fine image of the mind as a piano or organ: individual notes are struck sequentially, meld into chords, and finally one dominant melody emerges, a sort of unison. Perhaps Shelley is thinking of Coleridge's poem "The Eeolian Harp" (1796), "Rhythm in all thought."…

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X [h] the greatest improvements have been and may b…

Science & Technology

By improvements he means advances. The years around the turn of the century, 1800, witness stunning advances in chemistry (Davy), astronomy (Herschel), and medicine (Jenner, Cuvier, and Bichat).