Galvanism and Scientific Discovery

Posted: April 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

Galvanism and Scientific Discovery


“Galvanism” can be defined as the effect of the application of electric current pulses through body tissues that causes muscle contraction.  Late in the 18th century, Scientist Luigi Galvani, who was experimenting on dissected frogs, mistakenly touched a brass rod to a steel scalpel making a clear contraction of muscle in an otherwise dead frog.  He believed that this form of electricity, which he called “animal electricity”, was a form of energy that was still being held in the animal’s tissue.  Today, it is referred to as Electrophysiology and scientists are aware that it is not in fact an electrical fluid streaming from the brain that makes the animal twitch but instead just the effect of the joining of two metals and their electrical charges.

Interaction with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

At this time, Galvanism was the newest scientific research being conducted in Europe.  Yet, Mary Shelley even goes as far as naming an experiment researched by Darwin in which he was able to make a sample of vemicelli move in a glass vase.  The preface of Frankenstein is almost completely devoted to further defining the reason by which Shelley chose to gorge herself in the idea of galvanism, which led her to a radical dream about the creation of life through electrical movement.   In the preface, she writes, “ “I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” (Shelley 1).  This only serves as more evidence of Shelley’s interaction with the scientific experiment of galvanism being conducted at the time.

Throughout the novel, one can see that Mary Shelley is consumed by the idea of raising and creating life from a dead state.   Essentially, electricity is the source of life for the monster whose body is that of a man that once lived.    Mary Shelley’s thoughts and ideas regarding the scientific discovery of the time pertaining to galvanism become clear in Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating and regenerating life making the audience see him as the creator of all living things (a god-like figure). This becomes evident in the Victor’s line “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation up on lifeless matter” (Shelley 76).   By creating this life form known as the “monster” the audience is left to understand the relationship between Character personalities and the function of electricity.  This deals with the idea of “duality” where the positive and negative electrical forces highlight other contrasts within the novel such as the monster’s character as good or evil, and the morals of Dr. Frankenstein as being the creator versus the destroyer. (Sanchez)


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