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‘Living in a Material World’: Frankenstein and new materialism
  1. Jasmine Yong Hall
  1. English, Elms College, Chicopee, MA 01013, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jasmine Yong Hall, English, Elms College, Chicopee, MA 01013, USA; hallj{at}


This paper uses concepts from Karen Barad’s theories from quantum physics and other theoretical approaches from new materialism to show how Frankenstein can be used to introduce this new framework and to challenge an older one based on dualism, representationalism and individualism. A new ethical understanding of the message of the text emerges from this reading—one that rethinks the prohibitions against ‘playing God’ or creating the unnatural and relies instead on an ethics of care.

  • cultural history
  • English literature
  • literary theory
  • literature and medicine
  • narrative ethics

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Evaluations of the role of the humanities in a medical undergraduate curriculum draw attention to a stereotypical division between the sciences and the humanities in which the humanities is imagined as the counter to positivist reductionism in the sciences, while at the same time criticised as not being objective or evidence based.1 In The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, Fitzgerald and Callard (2016) described this critique as a way of envisioning the humanities as the ‘pleasant (but more or less inconsequential) helpmeets’ of biomedicine, ‘lurking hopefully, poetry books in hand, at the edges of the clinical encounter’s “primal scene”’(35).

Critical medical humanities instead suggests a relationship of ‘entanglement’ where the humanities is neither supportive nor oppositional but rather a ‘critical collaborator’, turning a critical lens on both fields to examine foundational concepts that they share (Viney, Callard, and Woods 2015, abstract). One such concept is revealed in what both see as valuable, whether it is science or the humanities which is represented as the more beneficial. On the one hand, science is often characterised as the rational and objective partner to the more subjective realm of the arts. In this representation, science is more highly valued; it yields real truths about the world, whereas the humanities play the supplementary role of providing emotional resonance. Fitzgerald and Callard’s use of the word ‘helpmeet’ to describe the humanities suggests a gendered implication in this contrast. The humanities deal with the subjective realm of emotional response and so are feminised and corporeal in comparison to science’s male-identified, rational thinking subject. On the other hand, when it is the sciences that are found wanting, it is because they are seen as dealing in a material world of facts and data that requires the humanities to give it meaning. Science is mechanistic while the humanities are both more human and more humane.

One can trace the hierarchical valuation of these characteristics back to Cartesian dualism. When science is praised, it is for qualities of thought, rationality and objectivity, where the bias of the humanities is emotional and thus imagined as involuntary. When the tables are turned, it is science that is seen as dealing in the material and thus controlled and mechanistic, requiring the humanities to play the role of the mind, the constructor of meaning.

In Descartes’ binary division, matter is the inert substance which the mind can study, measure, and through knowledge, control. Through the development of the scientific method, and the laws established by Newtonian physics, matter is predictable and determined. By emphasising the ‘cogito’ in human beings, dualism imagines the human condition as the complete opposite of the material: not inert, but moving on the basis of free-willed agency. The human being is an active investigator of the passive matter around him, possessing not only the ability to know but to act on matter.

In the humanities, critical theory has focused on the way in which this binary division has been used to differentiate those who possess power in society from those who do not. Authority is disembodied, while those subject to authority are closely associated with the functions and appearance of the corporeal. A normative definition of the human emerges along with the new citizen state and is used to justify colonialism, slavery and the denial of equal rights to women. The Enlightenment’s challenge to older ideas of the power of the sovereign with the new ideal of democracy and individual rights coexists with the denial of citizenship through gender and race classification. This demonstrates that the humanism of the humanities cannot be adopted uncritically and why medical humanities benefits from adopting the same critical approach.

In science, dualism is also challenged. In neuroscience, for example, work done by researchers like Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that emotions are actually central to rational decision-making. More generally, neuroscience questions the very division of mind and matter in its focus on the material basis for cognition. In addition, medical ethicists have voiced concern regarding the effects of dualistic thinking in how patients see themselves and how they are treated by medical practitioners and institutions. In Body, Illness and Ethics, for example, Frank (2013) described patients who are disconnected from their own bodies. Illness makes them feel that they suddenly have to attend to the body, which they do not conceive of as being part of who they are. Frank detailed the ways in which modern medicine discourages body association: “physicians…teach their patients that with respect to how they feel, the numbers, or diagnostic images, or cardiac tracings, are more reliable” (Frank 2013, 34). The body is treated as passive material to be measured through the more active and objective agency of scientific measurement, and the patient’s own sense of their body discounted as subjective. Frank instead suggested that patient and doctor view each other as similarly embodied selves, with shared vulnerability and a shared sense of mortality—what Albert Schweitzer referred to as the ‘brotherhood of those who bear pain’ (as cited in Frank 2013, 35). Similarly, Brody (2002) described a ‘mutual and reciprocal’ relationship in which, “Today I listen to the testimony of someone’s suffering; tomorrow that person (or someone else) will be listening to my testimony of my own” (Brody 2002, 22).

A very different way of conceptualising the material world and humanity’s place in it has recently emerged in the work of Karen Barad and others which falls generally under the rubric of new materialism. It is this conceptual foundation that is being used by those in critical medical humanities who are calling for a different approach to the field, one which is ‘willing to navigate the deep entanglements of subjectivity, experience, pathology, incorporation, and so on, which cut across the ways in which we understand both the human and her medicine today’ (Fitzgerald and Callard 2016, 38).

Entanglement is a central concept in new materialism because it captures the sense of the inseparability of two things in relationship. One of Barad’s foundational ideas is that the basic ontological unit is not an individual object with inherent properties, but phenomena which are the ‘inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting agencies’ (Barad 2007, 139). Barad uses the neologism ‘intra-action’ in order to emphasise the idea that objects do not pre-exist the relationships out of which properties emerge. There are no pre-existing relata before relationship. We cannot, then, analyse what the object or agent is apart from the intra-action, rather ‘the object and the measuring agencies emerge from, rather than precede, the intra-action that produces them’ (Barad 2007, 128).

This central idea stands in direct opposition to Cartesian dualism and to its application in Enlightenment science. Nature is not a fixed entity. The material is not objects frozen in time, but an ongoing process. Measurement does not reveal pre-existing values of independently existing objects separable from the means of measurement. Knowledge-making practices, from means of measurement to social-cultural influences, are part of the phenomena being described.

Conversely, agency is not a property of the transcendent subject whose free will depends on being disconnected from the material. Rather the subject and object positions are defined by what Barad calls an ‘agential cut’. It is not that there is an absolutely external world which is acted on, and an absolutely internal being which initiates action, but rather within the entangled phenomena a separation is made at a particular moment which determines agency. The agential cut ‘enacts a local causal structure’ (Barad 2007, 175) rather than the ‘Cartesian cut’ in which subject and object are inherent properties (Barad 2007, 118).

An important consequence of this view of the world and of human beings’ role in it is that it does not make sense to think of prohibition as a guiding principle of ethics. Human beings cannot, through prohibition, keep from interfering with the ongoing process of what the world is becoming. Barad takes up the question ‘Do I dare disturb the universe’ as posed by Freeman Dyson (alluding to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’) and asks where there is to stand outside of the universe such that one does not disturb it (396). Instead, Barad ties ethics to being (and similarly to knowledge). Referring to Levinas, she connects our being in the world, our responsiveness, to responsibility. We are not separate beings, but beings that are always in exchange with others: ‘subjectivity is not a matter of individuality but a relation of responsibility to the other’ where responsibility is defined as ‘the ability to respond to the other’ (391–392). We are not responsible in the sense of a chain of events that begin with an ‘I’, for ‘I’ is already entangled in the becoming of the world, and what follows our intra-action in the world shapes both the world and the ‘I’. Ethics then becomes a question of ‘taking account of the entangled materializations of which we are a part, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities’ (384). It is not that we should avoid changing the world, but that as we are always part of the changing of the world, we must acknowledge our role as agents of change.

I would like to consider how to introduce this new paradigm in the undergraduate classroom using Frankenstein, both because of the thematic centrality of definitions of mind/body (and the corollary divisions of human/material, nature/culture) in that text and because of its importance in thinking about questions of ethics in medicine and the sciences. In the discussion of Frankenstein that follows, I will show the ways in which the text can help challenge accepted definitions of science and its objects of study and introduce concepts from new materialism, particularly relying on Barad, but also with reference to Donna Haraway and others.2 I will then examine the way the text has been used in discussions of medical ethics and how this new framework changes that discussion.


Patient and public involvement statement

Patients or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting or dissemination plans of my research.


Frankenstein presents several different representations of science. One of the first of these is Victor Frankenstein’s description of his fatal error in having read the works of Cornelius Agrippa. If, instead, his father had explained to him that modern science ‘possessed much greater powers than the ancients, because the powers of the latter were chimerical,’ he might never have taken the path which led to the creation of the monster, and instead would have followed ‘the more rational theory of chemistry’ (Shelley 2012, 22).

The use of the word ‘chimerical’ (repeated later by M. Krempe) to describe Agrippa’s work implies that the work of the ancients is unconnected with the real world, and is, instead, wholly situated in the mind—the work of imagination only. In this way, Agrippa seems more allied to what Victor describes as Elizabeth Lavenza’s interests. While Victor ‘delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world; she busied herself in following the aerial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret, which I desired to discover; to her it was a vacancy; which she sought to people with imaginations of her own’ (20).

There are several features of these representations that I would follow-up on with students. One would be to point to the way in which science and the humanities are portrayed in very much the stereotypical fashion that I outlined in the introduction. Science investigates the world as it is. In order to properly see the world as it is, the investigator must be thought of as transcending any influence, whether individual or cultural. Victor therefore sees his mistake as falling under the influence of the false beliefs of the ancients. Modern science with its rational theories presents a transparent lens through which to see reality. Referring to ancient scientific beliefs as ‘chimerical’ obscures the fact that they are scientific, and allies them to the humanities, the mythic and imaginary. To think of older theories as mythic sets up a false contrast in which the theories of the present can be imagined as not constructed, not influenced by the historical cultural forces under which they are produced. And just as science changes through intra-action, the material world of which science is a part is changed by science. To imagine it as static and unchanging, with science only playing the role of observer, denies the role science plays in changing what the world is becoming.

Shelley, however, challenges this paradigm by having Victor bring into existence a unique being—something composed from what exists, but which had never existed before—that is something chimerical. Not only does this break down the seeming boundary between science and the humanities, with science unrestricted by ‘the facts relative to the actual world’ and able to ‘people [the world] with imaginations of [its] own,’ but it also challenges the idea that the material world is static and unchanging, only awaiting the power of observation to reveal it as it is. The existence of the creature shows the intra-action of mind and matter to create a world in which the definition of what is natural, what counts as a fact of the world, has changed.

It would be important here to counter the idea that students might hold that what Victor does in the creation of a chimerical being is ‘unnatural’. Nature is fundamentally chimeric: ‘every species’ genome is a mosaic of genes from other unrelated species, transferred horizontally from one organism to another, rather than just vertically from parent to child (Walsh 2018, para. 12). Nature is not composed of discrete objects; rather, what we tend to think of as the solid boundaries between one object and another are actually quite porous. In mapping the human genome, for example, it was assumed that there would be a much larger number of genes than actually was the case, and that once these genes were correctly identified, there would be greater control and predictability of life processes in an organism. But the surprisingly small number of genes eventually led to the finding that causality was not simply genetic or mechanistic but a complex interaction of diet, environment, hormones and neurochemicals (Coole and Frost 2010). Neuroplasticity and epigenetics break down traditional ideas of nature/culture or mind/body that we have inherited from the Enlightenment, as do findings of the way in which we are shaped by the microbiome, the ecosystem within our bodies in which bacteria outnumber human cells (Åsberg 2013). Instead of bounded organisms, we are biological systems.

Human beings do not stand apart from the material, but are one of the many parts of the material world which are constantly in a feedback loop, acting as agents of change and, in turn, being changed. If nature is a process of change in which things are constantly being reconfigured, then the binary of natural/unnatural is not a description of what is and is not real or possible, but a hierarchical representation used to enforce social norms. Nature is constantly becoming what it is not—unnatural.

It is helpful here to make use of the concept of knowledge production which Barad labels ‘diffraction’. Diffractive practices attempt to foster awareness of our own interference patterns (such as the heteronormative) in order to see how differences such as natural/unnatural support current systems of power (87). Turning from Frankenstein’s representation of ancient science to contemporary science allows for an examination of how hierarchies of race and gender help construct the ideal of the transcendent subject in control of the material and how that ideal is used in different social hierarchies.

Victor’s teacher, M. Waldman, sets forth the most extensive exploration of what modern science is. Waldman asserts that natural philosophers:

Whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pour 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; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. 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 (28–29).

Waldman’s description sets up a contrast between the initial impression of what natural philosophers do (‘dabble in the dirt’) and the much more powerful conclusion that by doing so they acquire the power to control and even to replace the powers of nature. It is this conclusion which leads Victor to find Waldman a far more inspiring instructor than M. Krempe, who offers up either ‘chimeras of boundless grandeur’ in the work of the ancients or ‘realities of little worth’ in modern science (28).

In Krempe’s representation, the mind and reality are so far removed from each other that any human meaning (‘grandeur’) is only imaginary. Reality, on the other hand, has objective existence, but no human value (the same division that science and the humanities are grappling with today). But in Waldman, what begins as an image of observation (‘eyes to pour over the microscope’) evolves into one in which human beings are imagined as transcendent in their ability to control, and even copy, the powers of nature.

In this conception of science, science has meaning through its ability to control the material. And, as many critics have noted, the power that science has is here imagined as a penetration of a gendered material body. Feminist critiques of Frankenstein have, in particular, drawn attention to the way in which both Waldman’s language and Victor’s is reflected in scientific writing contemporaneous with the novel. Both Andrew Smith and Anne Mellor cite the chemist Humphrey Davy’s ‘A Discourse, Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry’ (1802) as an especially egregious example. Davy writes that science gives the investigator:

Powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operation, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments (as cited in Smith 2016, 70).

Mellor traces this gendered language back to Francis Bacon. In this representation, nature is the static secret awaiting penetration by the male investigator, as in Waldman’s call to ‘penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places’, which is answered by Victor’s, “I pursued nature to her hiding places” (33).

Mellor contrasts this scientific practice with a less biased one which remains only descriptive of nature, giving the proto-evolutionary work of Erasmus Darwin as an example (Mellor 1987). However, one must remember that in Victor’s view, this is the version of science as descriptive, as in Victor’s presentation of himself as one who seeks to investigate or observe the world as it is. Also, when thinking of evolutionary theory, one cannot escape the knowledge that what seems only descriptive can be used to categorise marginal groups as degenerate or less than human. Returning to Barad, one has to question the idea that observation has no effect on what is being observed: “What is being described by our epistemic practices is not nature itself, but our intra-activity as part of nature” (Barad 2007, 207). Scientific knowledge describes a reality of which we are a part, which we are shaping even as we describe it.

In fact, the idea that observation has no effect is an illusion that helps to maintain the use of seemingly objective truths in support of the oppression of others. Here, it would be productive to introduce students to what Donna Haraway refers to as ‘a god trick’ (Haraway 1988, 581) the idea that one can maintain a perspective that is unaffected by the world. This illusion of impartiality is very strongly connected to the role of observer and metaphors of sight. As Pfizaenmaier (2018) notes in defining ‘Practice’ on the New Materialism website, Barad’s scientific practice uses ‘a vocabulary of practices, doings, and action in order to prevent the recycling of tropes of optics and reflection—metaphors that have a long and problematic history in the foundation of objectivity which presents itself as unsituated knowledge but can be revealed as a “conquering gaze from nowhere”’ (para. 6, citing Haraway in closing). It is the lack of acknowledgement of one’s particular situation that allows for knowledge to be presented as if from above, ‘a perspective that under the guise of neutrality or nowhere (but embracing all) hides a very specific position (male, white, heterosexual, human) and thus makes this position universal’ (Rogowska-Stangret 2018, para. 3).

Sight is, of course, of central importance when considering the nature of the creature in Frankenstein, as monstrousness seems to rest so wholly on his ‘unearthly ugliness…almost too horrible for human eyes’ (Shelley 2012, 67). However, the objective reality of monstrousness is undercut by Shelley when she draws our attention to the unreliability of these judgements based on observation. For example, when Victor initially discusses the appearance of the creature, he states that he chose features that he considers beautiful, and assembled the limbs to be proportionate. He shows no sign of the kind of horror which the creature later evokes while he is in the process of creation. So, it is only when the material, both beautiful and proportionate, attains agency that it becomes monstrous in Victor’s eyes.

The creature’s material being is emphasised by the repeated use of the word filth in either descriptions of his appearance or the techniques of his creation (as in Victor’s ‘workshop of filthy creation’ (34)). The creature himself uses the term when distinguishing his form from that of man’s: ‘God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image, but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid from its very resemblance’ (91). But this series of resemblances raises as many questions as it answers. If man’s form is the image of God, and the creature’s the image of man, then why is the creature not in the image of God? The answer seems to lie in the idea that the creature has the qualities of the corporeal without the addition of the transcendent—that which gives the human the status of subject.

But in giving the creature the qualities of an animate being, Shelley also brings this into question. What does it mean to be a ‘filthy mass that move(s) and talk(s)’ (103) as Victor describes the creature? An obvious answer is that this defines what it is to be human. And why should corporeality lead to a rejection by all human beings, such that one’s very nature is to be ‘solitary and detested’ (91)? The answer to this question lies in the form of the word Shelley chooses here— ‘detested’ rather than ‘detestable’—the same word used earlier by Victor when he orders the creature to ‘relieve me from the sight of your detested form’. The form of the word places the emphasis on Victor and the other humans in the text who reject the creature based on observation. The creature does not possess the inherent quality of being detestable; rather, to be ‘detested’ connects observation to definition and through definition to treatment of the other as monstrous.

Seeing the creature as ‘filth’—a word which not only emphasises the corporeal but connects the corporeal to moral corruption—exemplifies the process of abjection in which what is corporeal is projected onto the other accompanied by a feeling of disgust. This projection allows for the denial of the self as an object—an object of sight, observation or definition. It maintains the seeming permanence of the subject/object division and denies the fact that where that line is drawn, where the agential cut is made, can shift. Through this process the self can be imagined as separate from the material and so rendered invisible and normative. But the description of the creature as ‘filth’ also acts as an ongoing threat that this material will cross the boundary between self and other. In this way, the creature illustrates Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg in that the Cyborg acts as a critique of narratives of the unified and transcendent self, the self as invulnerable and in control of the material (Haraway 1990). These are the narratives which use binary divisions of race and gender difference to mark the other as corporeal and hold up this difference as natural. Conversely, those associated with the mind are the rational investigators who name and categorise the other, for example, in the treatment of indigenous peoples as ethnographic specimens.

Focusing on the creature as a paradigm of the Cyborg would help students in learning about different critiques of this kind of narrative whether it occurs in science or the humanities.3 For example, in ‘Romantic Contexts’, Hogle (2016) showed that Shelley includes just such a critique in her allusions to Rousseau. First, in both Walton and Victor, Shelley juxtaposes self-identities of glory and achievement with rejection of connection to others, particularly family, and in Victor’s case to his rejection of the creature. Both characters show a strong similarity to Shelley’s description of Rousseau, who showed ‘“the elevation and intensity of delicate and exalted passion” while also “neglecting the first duty of man by abandoning” his family’ (Shelley, as cited in Hogle 2016, 46). Second, Hogle notes the similarity of the creature to the imagined child in Emile, ‘a child’ who ‘at its birth’ had ‘the stature and strength of a grown man’ (46). Such a being only achieves subject status in Rousseau’s view by receiving an education. And of course the creature does receive an education, but only surreptitiously, by eavesdropping on the education of Safie, the young Arab woman in the DeLacey household. Hogle points out that Safie is meant to allude to Sofie, the character in Emile who receives a separate and unequal education in comparison to the title character. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote in relation to Sophie that for Rousseau women ‘are at once sentimentalised and viewed anxiously as deformed or monstrous’ (Wollstonecraft as cited in Hogle 2016, 47). As the creature is placed in a position which connects him to Safie, both female and racially other, and as the creature also plays the role of unpaid worker or slave to the DeLaceys, Shelley suggests that Rousseau’s ideal of the natural man is shown to rest on the exclusion of these groups from education, and thus from full subject status. Like women, it is the creature’s objectification which, despite his segregated and clandestine learning, makes him ‘deformed or monstrous’.

In addition to these uses of word choice, theme and characterisation, a course on new materialism and Frankenstein can draw attention to the way in which Shelley makes use of literary techniques such as the structure of the novel and the use of unreliable narrators in order to critique the Enlightenment ideal of a unified and transcendent self. The nested narratives, for example, help to undermine the hierarchy of subject/object or self/other by emphasising the position or situation of the speaker. Doing so, Shelley does not represent knowledge as emerging from the perspective of a ‘conquering gaze from nowhere’ but rather as ‘situated knowledge’. Both Koepke (2019) and Poovey (2012) point to this aspect of the novel’s structure, with Koepke focusing on the ethics of Victor’s ‘paternalistic decisions’ (34) in contrast with Walton’s decision-making process which gives his crew a voice in whether or not to return home. In Walton’s case, the decision rests ‘not on which choice is correct or will contribute to scientific progress’ but on mutual consent (Koepke 2019, 34). The fictionalised version of the text emphasises mutuality in its very construction, with Victor correcting Walton’s notes (35). And it is this relational model which London (2012) describes as part of Shelley’s own writing process. Discussing James Rieger’s introduction to the 1818 text, London shows that when Rieger criticises Shelley’s collaboration with her husband, this does not reflect on Shelley’s imaginative powers, but rather ‘implicates the masculine in the production of monstrosity’—pointing to the patchwork construction of the text as well as the creature (394). London goes on to assert that this is a more general account of all writing. Shelley’s use of other texts and literary allusions ‘may expose not so much her lack of originality, as the material conditions that constitute textuality as a form of grafting’ (398). Creation is not an individual human agent acting on inert material, but a collaboration in which human practices are part of an ongoing material process.

This of course also serves as a critique of Victor’s construction of the creature, which is markedly solitary. Most critical focus on this aspect of his creation has emphasised the exclusion of women and the idea that that exclusion makes the creation unnatural.4 While I agree that the exclusion of women is important, I would not go on to draw that same conclusion. In Victor, Shelley depicts a male character going to extremes to separate himself from materiality, including the physicality of his own body in an act of reproduction, and yet utterly failing to do so. What Shelley does, then, is turn the gaze back on the investigator, not only reversing the usual subject/object position, but also holding up to examination the ways in which the investigator tries to avoid the material object position. If instead one asserts that natural creation must be heterosexual, then binaries of male/female and natural/unnatural are reinvoked, associating women, as has been done over and over in this binary division, with the physical and natural. And again, what is ‘natural’ can then be used as an oppressively normative categorisation, as Stryker (2019) points out in her identification with Frankenstein’s creature: “I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment” (238).

In fact, in these binary divisions, real difference is not recognised; the other is always being defined in terms of self, as ‘not me’. Haraway uses the term ‘reflexivity’ to describe this process which ‘only displaces the same elsewhere’ (Haraway and Goodeve 2018, 16). Examining both Victor and Walton as unreliable narrators shows the way in which this reflexivity works to create hierarchies in which the individual idealises the self as whole and unconflicted through representations of the other. In the introduction, for example, Walton’s letter to his sister sets up a seeming dialogue in which she has ‘evil forebodings’ (Shelley 2012, 7) regarding his voyage and looks to him for reassurance. In that reassurance, though, he speaks for her: “you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation.” Silencing any opposition allows him to conclude that “[T]hese reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my letter, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven” (8). Walton’s language here is very similar to Victor’s description of his state of mind while he constructs the creature, what he calls his ‘supernatural enthusiasm’, and to the reiteration of that state of mind in his final words, his feeling that he ‘trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers’ (152). Reflexivity allows for a feeling of transcendence, ascending from the material to heaven. It rejects any critical or countervailing voice, speaking for the other to circumvent any chance that what has been asserted could be contested. But Shelley introduces, even in Walton’s reflection, the possibility that the self is not transcendent or unified in its assertions. The use of the word ‘agitation’ suggests that the ‘evil forebodings’ that Walton constructs in the imagined person of his sister are his own. And the action of ‘agitation’ draws attention to Walton’s own embodied state. The repression of embodiment here reminds one that ‘evil forebodings’ are closely related to the Latin ‘monstrum’, a portent, particularly of misfortune. To fail to achieve transcendence and the control it promises is to fall into the material, into a future of evil portent, into the monstrous.

Again, Shelley subverts this kind of univocal narrative and its denial of the material in Victor’s narrative. I have already mentioned the way in which Victor’s description of the material of creation, both beautiful and proportionate, is transformed when the creature attains agency. Another way of looking at this is that once the creature has agency, he can no longer be easily absorbed into the narrative of similarity. He is not the material object to Victor’s observing subject, but has his own subjectivity, emphasised by the fact that it is his ‘watery eyes’ (35) that first elicit Victor’s horror. It is also notable that though Victor at first points to the beauty of the material, he soon revises this to assert: “I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (36). Victor not only contradicts his earlier description, but also refers to the inanimate material as ‘he’ while objectifying the animate creature as a ‘thing’ once the creature has achieved agency.

The creature’s agency subverts the illusion of control that the transcendent subject has over the material. It is lack of control that underlies Victor’s rationale for rejecting the creation of a female creature. He realises that as a ‘thinking and reasoning animal’ (119) she is under no compulsion to consent to the agreement between Victor and the creature. As Mellor (2012) points out, Victor also fears that the female creature’s strength and size would give her the ability to choose her own mate (360). Vargo (2016) adds that in Victor’s rationale one can see ‘Miltonic assumptions’ (37) and that in this particular allusion to Paradise Lost, Shelley is reflecting on her mother’s criticism of Milton in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. However, Shelley removes the justification that is implicit in Milton’s description of Eve by having Victor pronounce the female creature ‘thinking and reasoning’. Victor cannot allow for the existence of materiality that exists with its own agency and with the ability to reproduce that materiality outside of his illusory control.

The most important way in which Victor’s moral judgement is questioned is in his continual definitions and redefinitions of what the creature is in order to justify his own actions. Immediately after abandoning the creature, Victor refers to him as ‘my enemy’ (36). And then, on learning of William’s murder, he asserts that ‘nothing in human form could have destroyed that fair child’ (50) which not only negates earlier descriptions of the creature as a human being but also denies the fact that beings in human form are quite capable of the murder of children. His categorisation of the creature as human/inhuman is especially notable in his final words to Walton, which rationalise his failure to fulfil the promise of making the creature a mate. While he first describes ‘the creation of a man’ (152) and that this man is a ‘rational creature’ (156), he goes on to state that his duty “towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention…. I did right in refusing to create a companion for the first creature. He shewed unparalleled malignity and selfishness, in evil” (156–157). If the creature is a man, then he is, in fact, one of Victor’s fellow-creatures. Even if he is not human, as a ‘creature’, another being in the world, he is a ‘fellow-creature’. It is this connection to himself that Victor elides in referring to the creature’s character as ‘unparalleled’. Again, the actions of the creature seem far from unparalleled in the annals of human crime. And if the creature is unparalleled, the responsibility for that lies with Victor, both with his refusal to provide a mate, and even more importantly with his initial abandonment—an abandonment which rests on Victor’s refusal to accept a being whose existence denies Victor’s position as transcendent subject in both its parallel subjectivity and its materiality.


In discussions of scientific ethics, Frankenstein, as Timothy Morton (2016) points out, has taken on a mythical status. The prefix ‘Franken’ is enough to evoke the meaning, as in ‘Frankenfoods’ or ‘Frankenfish’. In 2016, a conference held on the bicentennial of the novel’s origin in Hermence, Switzerland, was centred on ‘the Frankenstein Narrative’s Influence on biotech, medicine, and policy’. In April of 2020, researchers published results showing the way in which scientists themselves use the myth as a social and ethical reference (Nagy et al. 2020). The authors point to the way in which Frankenstein ‘offers simple lessons for the scientific community so they can better control their creations: don’t be arrogant, don’t overreach’ (7). The scientists interviewed for the piece summarise the lessons of the novel in a similar way. They see it as being ‘about a scientist who creates something beyond his understanding and control’ (14). They also voice concern that the novel mirrors legitimate fears that the public holds about work on robotics, AI, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering: fears that such research will lead to loss of humanity and individuality.

The warnings that recur in this and other articles point to Victor’s transgression as either an attempt to ‘play God’ or, as quoted by (Nagy et al. 2020), to ‘“=aspire to become greater than… nature will allow’ (Shelley 2012, 33). But, as Venkataraman (2017) points out in a 2017 piece in Slate, the problem with these warnings is that in reality we are all, scientists and non-scientists alike, quite comfortable with the idea of playing God and find nothing ethically questionable about it when, for example, we practice selective breeding to create better crop yields or stronger/faster animals. We also do not object when rescuers interfere with acts of nature to put out fires or rescue people from floods. The real danger that is being pointed to—emphasised in the repeated use of the word ‘control’—is a fear of unintended consequences.

So science continues to use the model of control or mastery of nature that has been discussed above in the tradition of Francis Bacon, and that shows up in the language of Humphrey Davy, echoed by both M. Waldman and Victor in the novel. The lesson scientists often take from Frankenstein is really not that one should not play God. It is that one must have better knowledge and thus control outcomes—that is, that one should do a better job of playing God.

Victor Frankenstein, in one of his last acts in the novel, demonstrates this approach when he exhorts Walton’s men to continue their ‘glorious expedition’ despite their fears: “Oh! Be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes, and firm as a rock. The ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts might be; it is mutable, cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not” (154). It is nature which will be transformed by the power of man because man is above nature, and in that ascension ‘more than a man’. The humanist ideal which Victor shares with Bacon and Descartes, and which still underlies much scientific thinking today, actually shares a common belief with the kind of posthumanism that people fear in robotics and genetic engineering—the belief that the material world can be controlled through human knowledge and in that control our own materiality can be overcome. We can be more than men.

If we fear the loss of our humanity in the kind of posthumanism that refers to the body as a ‘flawed piece of engineering’ (Nick Bostrum as cited in Dolezal 2016, 314), we cannot continue to deny our connection to the material. A new materialist ethics, in contrast, is not an ethics of control and prohibition but an ethics of care which acknowledges our shared vulnerability with all material things. In ‘Frailty’, Nathalie Blanc (2016) suggests that we cannot continue to deny our materiality for it is this denial which has led to the destruction of a multitude of species and is leading us close to the destruction of our own:

We will have to live in a fragile manner, with no guarantees. Today we know that we are ignorant of many things: the impact of science experiments on bodies and environments … We have to question the effort required by control and stop wanting to exploit all tangible and intangible resources at all costs (para. 4).

Uncertainty and the embodied sense of our physical vulnerability are both traits that the Gothic genre brings to our awareness. We can see Shelley doing this briefly in the description of Victor’s ‘workshop of filthy creation’ when she adds that his ‘eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment’ (34). Rather than emphasising Victor’s point of view as subject in this description of his gaze, Shelley points to the material nature of the gaze, one which is affected by his environment. Shelley describes him as a material being responding to the material world of which he is a part.

In many Gothic texts, our sense of uncertainty is relieved by a resolution based on knowledge. Knowledge returns us to a sense of transcendent control and relieves us of our feelings of horror and abjection. But in Frankenstein, there is no such resolution. We do not witness the creature’s destruction, nor does the knowledge that Walton gains of the creature’s origins allow him to take up Victor’s request to destroy the creature. We are never certain even of the creature’s nature. Is it “Human? Inhuman? Superhuman? Posthuman? Non-human?”, as Mousely (2016) asks. This indeterminacy winds up affecting our sense not just of the creature’s nature but of our own: “signal(ing) the presence within the human of hybridity and difference” (164).

Morton (2016) points to the way in which the structure of the novel itself heightens anxiety and uncertainty. At the outermost level of the nested structure, we are imagining Mrs Saville, Walton’s sister, reading his letters, but the lack of detail about her, including any information as to whether she even receives the letters, means that we as readers are put in her place: “We get the uncanny feeling of being Mrs. Saville” (148). We are not in an exterior subject position but a participant/listener to the narrative. And in that position of being part of the world, our anxiety, our responsiveness, is a signal of our investment in what happens, of caring.

It is the uncanny nature of the creature as both subject and material that leads to what is Victor’s central mistake in this reading, not his creation of the creature but his abandonment of it. The abandonment, which occurs at just the moment when Victor sees ‘the dull yellow eye … open’, violates almost exactly the ideal of relationship which Shelley establishes at the novel’s opening when Walton wishes for someone whose ‘eyes would reply to mine’ (10). In that description, Shelley performs a neat trick of synesthesia which avoids objectification. Eyes and voice are merged to exemplify a subject/subject as opposed to subject/object relationship.5

In the Cartesian framework, the only certainty we have is individual and interior. Other beings we see around us may, in fact, be bodies with the appearance of agency, moving flesh, monsters. In Shelley’s text, as in Barad’s framework, being is an exchange, an exchange that does not demand certainty. This is what the creature asks for in the creation of a female, someone “with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being” (Shelley 2012, 101). He does not want an other who is an object to his agency. He does not, as Victor does, concern himself with the female creature’s compliance or his ability to control her. Nor is he simply looking for a mirror image for, as he adds later, “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred and an hundred-fold; for that creature’s sake, I would make peace with the whole kind” (102).

Victor, too, at times, defines being in terms of exchange, most especially with Walton. He mentions several times that his meeting with Walton has returned him to life, although he also asserts that the loss of his family means that he ‘cannot begin life anew’ (17). He states again, at the very end of the novel, that his life is over as Walton cannot take the place of Clerval, nor any woman replace Elizabeth. This statement points to the sense of incestuous closeness in the Frankenstein family. Victor’s inability to move beyond his family is the flip side of the isolated and hubristic individualism that he has been criticised for in constructing the creature. Just after leaving his family and arriving at Ingolstadt, Victor remarks that because of his ‘remarkably secluded and domestic’ (27) upbringing, it is impossible for him to make new connections, and it is in this seclusion that he begins his work. His domestic life seems idyllic; it has the safety of the known. Yet it is also stagnant and sterile, no coming back to life through new contacts when that family is forever lost. Victor elaborates on this ontological and epistemological model to Walton when he explains that a man is happier who ‘believes his native town to be the world than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow’ (32–33). This is the passage cited at the beginning of the research piece by Nagy et al which was used to show that the moral of Frankenstein is a warning of the dangers of forbidden knowledge. I would argue that it is faulty to imagine that one can exceed what nature allows, but that there is an alternative to the limited choice between never straying from what one is already certain of and aspiring to control the unknown and risking monstrous results.

That alternative is to exchange knowledge and control for an acceptance of anxiety, and with it, care. As Barad suggests, we cannot help but be responsible to others as we are, in our intra-actions with the world, always responding to the world. “Ethics is … not about the right response to a radically exteriorilized other, but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part” (393). The difference between a ‘right response’, an attempt to know and control outcomes, and an ethics of care can be shown, as Outka (2012) points out, in the juxtaposition in Frankenstein between the continual demand put to the creature of ‘What are you?’ with the creature’s response, ‘Care for me’ (43). We must rethink a humanist ethics which subsumes the other in similarity and tries through knowledge to control that other without acknowledging the bias of knowledge claims. Instead, ethical behaviour must reflect our ‘effort to respect and meet well with, even extend care to, others, while acknowledging that we may not know the other and what the best kind of care would be’ (Åsberg 2013, 2).


Introducing concepts from new materialism like entanglement does not just allow for a new approach to medical humanities, but for a new way of describing how the world works that is not based on an inherent separation of transcendent and controlling human actors from passive and controlled material objects. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein offers many ways to present this new perspective to students. When Shelley has Victor Frankenstein construct new life from existing material, she challenges the science/humanities divide in which science seems only to deal with the world as it is, and the humanities with the world as it might be. She also challenges the separation of the human investigator from nature as the passive object of investigation. Instead, she demonstrates that the world is in a constant state of becoming based on the entangled relationship of investigator and investigated. And because the creature is a being with both materiality and agency, Shelley forces us to question whether humanity can be defined by its transcendence of and control of the material. We are, in fact, in a feedback loop in which we enact change and are, in turn, transformed by the world around us.

It is therefore paramount that we acknowledge our own interference in the world’s becoming rather than imagine that we can occupy a place of safety as objective observers. Frankenstein also affords us a way to introduce this concept to students. We can see the critique of this view in examining the language of both M. Waldman and Victor, which renders the passivity of nature in highly gendered terms. It is also shown in the way in which Victor and others in the novel attempt to maintain their view of themselves as transcendent subjects through the process of abjection. A discussion of this process with students can then extend beyond the novel to look at how the same process has been used to justify the classification of human beings as less than human. And drawing an analogy between the character of Safie (and by extension, the creature) and the character of Sophie in Rousseau’s Emile can show students that abjection is a way in which not only the sciences, but also the humanities, have been less than humane in their categorisation of the other.

Finally, a course on Frankenstein can question traditional approaches to medical and scientific ethical problems, ones which rely on a view that the investigator can maintain a role of non-interference or, conversely and paradoxically, of control of the world. Focusing on Victor’s abandonment of the creature, and the creature’s plea to be cared for, we can ask whether ethics must rest not on separation and control of the world around us, but on an acknowledgement of our entangled intra-action with and responsibility for the world and its becoming.

In an article on new materialist approaches to environmentalism, Walsh (2018) refers to the Nguni Bantu word for human beings, ‘Ubuntu’, to encapsulate the ethical stance we must take in regard to our impact on the world (para. 20). Although ‘Ubuntu’ means human beings, its literal translation is ‘I am because we are’. We must, then, shift our way of thinking about humanity from the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am’, where existence of the individual rests on separating ourselves from the matter of the world, to one that reflects ‘I am because we are’, where the ‘we’ is not only other human beings but everything that exists.

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I wish to thank the following friends, colleagues, and family members who read drafts of the paper and gave me useful feedback and encouragement: William Wright, Dr. Peter DePergola, and Dr. Andrew Harrington


1. See, for example, “How to make the most of history and literature in the teaching of medical humanities: the experience of the University of Geneva” by Louis-Courvoisier and Wenger (2005); “Why Teach Literature and Medicine? Answers from Three Decades” by Jones (2013); “Toward ‘harder’ medical humanities: moving beyond the ‘two cultures’ dichotomy by Polianski and Fangerau (2012); and “Seven Types of Ambiguity in Evaluating the Impact of Humanities Provision in Undergraduate Curricula” by Bleakley (2015).

2. I have particularly made use of the website New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on “How Matter Comes to Matter” whose “Almanack” section contains brief essays defining key terms.

3. The nature of the creature as Cyborg can be seen in the way in which a number of critics have drawn attention to its mixed nature and the way in which the representation of that nature associates him with the excluded others of race, class, gender and national origin. See, for example, Gilbert and Gubar (2012) “Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve”; Mary Poovey’s “‘My Hideous Progeny’: The Female and the Monster”; Anne K. Mellor’s “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein” and “Frankenstein, Racial Science and The Yellow Peril”; and Peter Brooks’ “What is a Monster (According to Frankenstein” all collected in Frankenstein (2012). See also Craciun (2016)Frankenstein’s Politics”; Brantlinger's (2016) “Race and Frankenstein”; and Haggerty (2016) “What is Queer about Frankenstein?” collected in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein (2016).

4. See, for example, Poovey (2012, 347) and Mellor (2012, 355).

5. Brooks (2012) shows the way in which sight and voice are used by Shelley to draw a strong contrast between the creature as objectified spectacle and eloquent speaking subject.



  • Contributors JYH is the sole author of this paper.

  • Funding The author has not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.