Special Issue Review: Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein

Diana Rose Newby //

Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018.


In her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley concludes with well wishes for her creation’s second life: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper” (25). Today, having entered the second century of this novel’s long afterlife, we might wish similar prosperity to its endlessly self-reproducing critical reception—a lingering legacy embodied by Literature & Medicine’s Fall 2018 theme issue on “Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein.”

Or might we not? As Executive Editor Catherine Belling acknowledges in her foreword to the special issue, the bicentennial of Frankenstein’s 1818 publication marked not only enduring fascination but a degree of exhaustion with one of the most thoroughly dissected works of fiction in the English literary canon. “It almost goes without saying that we should claim enough, now, and turn to new things in 2019,” Belling admits. “Yet it seems there’s always more the story has to say about us,” as evidenced by the fact—in Belling’s view—that “the world seems to have rearranged itself into configurations of Frankenstein,” and that these “configurations” are ripe for the critical self-reflection this issue performs (262).

Belling alludes to a single “world,” but the eleven essays that follow her foreword collectively examine two. The first is Britain in the decades after 1800, when “a new concept of life had emerged that unsettled man’s hierarchical relationship with other living beings on earth” (Karmakar and Parui 340): an era of “scientific interest in the reanimation of life” and, in tandem with that interest, speculation and debate about the nature of life itself (Pheasant-Kelly 332). Heightened scholarly interest has been invested in this period over the last several years; Amanda Jo Goldstein’s Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (2017) is but one example of recent efforts to elucidate “the problem of biological life” as one of the “defining fixations of Romantic modernity” (Goldstein 4).

Yet as the issue’s title indicates, the science that sparks particular interest for multiple contributors is not biology, but chemistry—a practice and a discourse, Mary Fairclough points out, that “at the opening of the nineteenth century still embodied fundamental mysteries” (282). Among these mysteries was the apparent but ambiguous relationship between chemical activity and organic vitality, a connection probed by the experimental research of chemists ranging from Joseph Priestley to Humphry Davy. Both Fairclough and Jeffrey Allan Johnson suggest that processes of “physiological chemistry” are key to Shelley’s much-discussed animation scene (Johnson 297). Challenging the more traditional interpretation that the Creature is a galvanized amalgam of badly sutured parts, these readings also shed new light on the general importance of the physical sciences to Romantic-era literature and philosophy.

So, too, do they gesture toward the significance of this scientific heritage to the second world that this special issue investigates: our own. The early twenty-first century is a technocultural moment in some ways remarkably parallel to the period from which Shelley hails. As a number of contributors suggest, Frankenstein is especially uncanny in its anticipation of contemporary biotechnology, the development and use of which raises questions similar to those that the novel presciently poses. In their own take on Shelley’s “Premonition of a Bioengineered Age,” Manali Karmakar and Avishek Parui point to the “fundamental bioethical issues” that Frankenstein forces its modern readers to confront:

what does it mean to be a human and to what extent is it possible to acknowledge kinship with living beings that are physiologically different from humans? How should bioengineered creatures be perceived? Frankenstein’s abhorrence for his progeny foregrounds the cultural anxiety, the stigma, and the experience of exclusion borne by the bioengineered being in a society that is embedded in an anthropocentric understanding of life processes. (350)

Of course, the “bioethical issues” that Frankenstein evokes, and that Karmakar and Parui recapitulate, are relevant not only to “the experience of exclusion borne by the bioengineered being,” but also to the alienation, “anxiety” and “stigma” surrounding disability. Under the auspices of its second theme, this issue broadly deals with what Martha Stoddard Holmes describes as “the disability perspectives that abound in Frankenstein but are infrequently engaged by critics” (373). Namely, these are perspectives associated with the Creature, whose physical and mental differences make it possible to read him as “a child born with unexpected disabilities” (Holmes 374)—and, equally, who is “disabled by others’ perception of him” as ugly, grotesque and deformed (Smith 414).

On the one hand, then, a connection can be readily drawn between the bioethical and disability readings. As both Holmes and Angela M. Smith persuasively show, the question of what it means to be human, in Frankenstein and more broadly, is rendered at least as fraught by ableist ontologies as it is by trans- and post-humanist technologies.

On the other, readers expecting the issue to establish a firm relationship between chemistry and disability may be disappointed. Guest editors Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman perhaps anticipate this critique when they explain that they “didn’t actually plan the collection to come out this way” but maintain that “its cohesion around these two points of interest suggests that Frankenscholarship is headed in new and interesting directions” (265). And the collection does ultimately achieve a kind of chemical cohesion, but it comes together in ways that leave certain seams exposed—a mode that we might call Frankenscholarship at the level of self-reflexive form.

Indeed, one of the most thought-provoking instances of continuity between the issue’s disparate parts is also a moment of marked critical tension within its twin thematics. In “Born This Way: Reading Frankenstein with Disability,” Holmes takes issue with the tendency of bioethical interpretations to focus on the abstractions of bioengineering while shying away from direct engagements with disability as a lived embodiment. We need to pursue these engagements, she insists, not with disability “as a bioethical hypothetical but as an identity we all will experience if we live long enough” (382).

Holmes’s critique can be easily extended to a number of essays within the collection, such as Karmakar and Parui’s, which concludes by calling for a revised and expanded “notion of personhood” that “accommodate[s] lives that are created in biotechnological laboratories” (352). The lives of many persons with disabilities, Holmes might argue, would also derive immediate benefit from this expansion. Not unlike bioengineered beings, disabled bodies—like the Creature’s body—can present as alien and indeterminate, often prompting the perception that they are less or other than human in natural kind.

Perhaps the crux of the connection between chemistry and disability, then, is precisely the shared terrain of epistemological and ontological “mysteries.” Disability theorist Nancy J. Hirschmann has argued that disability produces fear insofar as it makes visible the “undecidability of the body:” the inevitable fact, in other words, that “the body is not given, determined, and determinate” (139, 141). In a similar vein, early nineteenth-century chemistry bolstered a view of the body as mutable, porous and perpetually incomplete. And as this special issue suggests, Frankenstein fuses these dual notions of fluid embodiment in its narrative alchemy, requiring redefinitions of physical being and subjectivity that newly illuminate Shelley’s immediate context at the same time that they continually resonate with our own.

Image Source: Smithsonian.com

Works Cited

Belling, Catherine. “Editor’s Foreword: A Year of Frankenstein.Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 261-263.

Goldstein, Amanda Jo. Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Hirschmann, Nancy J. “Queer/Fear: Disability, Sexuality, and the Other.” Journal of Medical Humanities vol. 34, pp. 139-147.

Holmes, Martha Stoddard. “Born This Way: Reading Frankenstein with Disability.” Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 372-387.

Karmakar, Manali and Parui, Avishek. “Victor’s Progeny: Premonition of a Bioengineered Age.” Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 337-355.

Kavey, Allison B. and Friedman, Lester D. “Introduction: Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein.Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 264-268.

Johnson, Jeffrey Allan. “Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume? Revising the Popular Image of Frankenstein.” Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 287-311.

Pheasant-Kelly, Fran. “Reflections of Science and Medicine in Two Frankenstein Adaptations: Frankenstein (Whale 1931) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Branagh 1994).” Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 312-336.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by Johanna M. Smith, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Smith, Angela M. “Walk This Way: Frankenstein’s Monster, Disability Performance, and Zombie Ambulation.” Chemistry, Disability, and Frankenstein, theme issue of Literature and Medicine, vol. 36, no. 2, fall 2018, pp. 412-438.

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