creature that seems damaged from the moment of creation, and utters only animal-like cries. In Shelley’s book, however, the creature speaks eloquently and at length, and reads Milton, Plutarch, and Goethe to learn about humanity. Indeed, it is complex enough not to deserve the pejorative “monster;” Percy Shelley’s designation, the Being, is more appropriate.
The Being is made of parts taken from “the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse,” and so is of the organic rather than the mechani- cal type. UnlikeTalos and the golem, its origin is in dead human parts and this carries a special frisson, playing against images of graves and decay. In another departure from the genesis of Talos and the golem, the Being’s birth lacks any element of divinity, but arises out of the scientific beliefs of the time.The preface to the 1818 edition (written by Percy Shelley) begins:“The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin . . . as not of impossible occur- rence.”This was not Charles Darwin, founder of the modern theory of evolution, age seven at the time, but his grandfather Erasmus, a physician who had theorized that life could arise spontaneously from dead matter.
Mary Shelley introduced a further scientific basis for her story, writing,“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things.”This sentence referred to a suggestive discovery made by the Italian anatomist Luigi Galvani. In the late eighteenth century, as electrical science was advancing rapidly, Galvani observed that the legs of a dissected frog twitched under certain electrical con- ditions, and he concluded that electricity resided in the frog.We now know that electricity is indeed involved in neural behavior, but we also know that Galvani’s observation had nothing to do with electric- ity that arose in the animal. In Mary Shelley’s time, however, this issue was still fresh and “animal electricity” was taken as a sign of semimystical links between electricity and life forces. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, was honored with a scientific medal for seemingly reanimating a recently hanged criminal with an electric shock (which made the body twitch, but nothing more). Electricity was also used in attempts to revive drowned persons, perhaps even Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, who died by drowning.