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Distributed for Bodleian Library Publishing

The Science of Life and Death in "Frankenstein"

The first book to compile the historical scientific and medical thought that influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What is life? This was a question of particular concern for Mary Shelley. But how did Shelley and her fellow Romantic writers incorporate this debate into their work, and how much were they influenced by contemporary science and medicine?

The Science of Life and Death in "Frankenstein" is the first book to synthesize the scientific and medical thinking about life and death during Mary Shelley’s lifetime. Sharon Ruston explores the contemporary scientific basis behind Victor Frankenstein’s idea that life and death were merely ‘ideal bounds’ he could transgress in the making of the Creature. Ruston contextualizes the novel alongside the work of the key scientific and medical thinkers of the day, including John Abernethy, James Curry, Humphry Davy, John Hunter, William Lawrence, and Joseph Priestley.

The book also examines what Mary Shelley herself knew and believed about the boundaries of life and death. Interweaving images of the Frankenstein manuscript, portraits, medical instruments, and contemporary diagrams, Ruston shows how this extraordinary tale is steeped in historical scientific and medical thought.

192 pages | 32 color plates, 16 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

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“A beautifully cool and elegant survey of the contemporary science and medicine which young Mary Shelley wove so ingeniously into the dark gothic texture of her 1818 masterpiece. With quiet authority and wit, Sharon Ruston calmly assesses the wilder theories, the furious debates, the utopian hopes and the eye-watering experiments, which secretly shaped Frankenstein. Paradoxically, Ruston’s scholarship gives the Creature a whole new life beyond fiction.”

Richard Holmes

"But as Sharon Ruston’s brief and lively new book, The Science of Life and Death in 'Frankenstein,' makes vividly clear, the novel is thoroughly informed by, and a serious contribution to, early 19th- century debates about what it means for a clump of matter to be 'alive.'"

American Scientist

Table of Contents


1Life and Death in Romantic Literature
2Vital Air
3Electric Life
4Vis Vitae (the Vital Principle)
5Raising the Dead
Further Reading
Picture Credits

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