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Frankenstein, the novel written by Mary Shelley, takes ideas found in literary texts, moments in time, and people and incorporates them into the novel to tell the framed narrative. Alchemy and the alchemists, although scarcely mentioned in the novel, are quintessential to the continutation of the plot. It is the alchemists and their ideas, particularly those of Paracelsus and the concept of the elixir of life, that propel Victor Frankenstein to pursue the idea of creation through science, ultimately leading Victor to the creation of the creature in Frankenstein.
A modern misconception is that alchemy is the act of transmuting objects such as lead and mercury into gold and silver for material gain. In Frankenstein, the natural philosophy that is mentioned views alchemists as those who wished to discover the mystery of life and the creation of inanimate objects in addition to those who sought to restore the human soul to perfection. By viewing alchemy in such way, Victor wishes to use the alchemy he learns from his teachers to exterminate the state of death, a goal that is not for the wealth but for the benefit of the people.
With the intention of demonstrating of how Victor utilizes alchemy, one must see where Victor learns alchemy. While on a trip with his family, undesired weather prompts the family to stay inside the inn where Victor stumbles upon a book by the alchemist, Cornelius Agrippa. With Agrippa's ideas as an impulse, Victor goes on to read all of Agrippa's works as well as works by Paracelsus and Magnus, alchemists that lived in a time before Frankenstein was written. Victor regards these three alchemists as his teachers. Even Victor states that he is "a disciple of Albertus Magnus" that arose in the eighteenth century. (Shelly 23) Shelley uses this direct reference to illustrate that alchemy was the start of Victor's education. Although it is apparent all three alchemists have ideas that contribute to Victor's education, the works of Paracelsus are most recognizable and notable in the novel.
Paracelsus was a Swiss alchemist and physician who viewed and used alchemic medicine above all other ideas of alchemy to help people. Paracelsus "taught that 'the object of chemistry is not to make gold, but to prepare medicinesâ€¦'." (Redgrove 60) These medicines would be able to extend the life of man by healing them, and thus allow them to live a better life. It was believed that the exilir of life, a goal of many alchemists, was the ultimate medicine that would allow man to live eternally. With this in mind, one can view a parallel to Victor's idea in Frankenstein. Victor himself seeks the fabled elixir in the novel. He directly quotes the elixir of life. "I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. Butâ€¦wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (Shelley 23) At this point, Victor's focus lies in extending life, not the wealth that may have come with the discovery of making life. Consequently the ideas that the alchemists teach Victor and lead him towards creation do not stay with him entirely.
In spite of all that alchemy has taught Victor, modern day science challenges the views of the alchemists and pushes Victor toward chemistry. Although in this event Victor becomes a scientist, one must know that alchemy evolved into chemistry. It is a demonstration with electricity that Victor's father conducts that causes "the overthrow of Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus," in Victor. (Shelley 24) Due to this experiment, Victor goes off to study natural sciences at a school in Inglostadt. At Inglostadt Universiry, Victor comes across two professors, Krempe and Waldman, both men of science, with different views of alchemy. Krempe, on one hand, ridicules Victor and tells Victor that his time has been wasted acquiring knowledge on alchemy. On the other hand, Waldman sees Victor's educational background and does not criticize Victor. As Waldman states, "They had left to us, as an easier task, to give new names, arrange in connected classifications, the facts which they in a great degree had been the instruments of bringing to light." (Shelley 29) These words solidify that chemistry originated from alchemy since the statement refers to how this natural philosophy of alchemy, as a precursor, brought some of the mysteries of the world into public knowledge. Along side eachother, one can inspect use of alchemy against the use of science. Shelley uses both alchemy and science in the novel and thus, with the words Waldman states, it is seen that alchemy and science can not be separated. It is the union of the practice of science and ideas of alchemy that allow the creature to be created.
The creation of the creature is one of the most, if not the most, important moment in Frankenstein, yet to see how alchemy is related to this moment, an observation on the events leading to the creation must be made. Victor states, "One of the phaenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life." (Shelley 31) Victor starts to focus on the idea of life and death in living beings. It is here that he begins to question what causes death and more importantly, what causes life. With this, Victor eventually discovers the secret of the barrier that seperates life and death. "I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter." (Shelly 32) At this point Victor makes the biggest scientific discovery possible at the time and goes to work on making it possible by starting to collect dead matter, or in terms of alchemy, base materials to put together his creation.
Intitially Victor is indesicive in what he wishes to make, but he eventually decides on making the creature based on the image of human beings. When Victor has collected all his materials, after two years of working on his discovery, he finally brings his creation to life. In spite of how scientific his decision may be, it also has origins in alchemic teachings. One of Victor's teachers, Paracelsus, taught, "the belief in the artificial creation of minute living creatures resembling men (called 'homunculi')." (Redgrove 61) This decision to make the creature resemble a human can classify it a homunculus, since it was created artificially. This is important to see since in the novel, Shelley does not explicitly tell her readers the process in which the monster was created. The idea of collecting the dead material, before the creature is put together, can be seen as alchemy. In addition, the byproduct, the homunculus, also has an idea in alchemy. It would therefore seem the actual creation of the monster would have been alchemic as well since the initial and finals states were alchemic.
As it has been noted, alchemy and the teachings and ideas of alchemists were very influential in the creation of the creature in Frankenstein. Paracelsus' teachings along with the ideas of the elixir of life and the animation of inaminate materials are the key items that allow the creature to be born. Although one may say that science was the important factor in the creation of the monster, the science most visible in the book, chemistry, has its origins in alchemy. The inclusion of first alchemy and then science does not imply that alchemy is more important than science or vice-versa. These references to alchemy also prompt one to observe the case where alchemy was inexistent in the novel. This prompts the questioning of the initial impluse that Victor receives. What if Victor had initially picked up a book in religion or oceanography while at the inn instead of a book on alchemy? In this case I believe the novel would have advanced differently than way that it did, since without alchemy, using science to create would have little value. Waldman's character may not have been as supportive towards Victor since it is Waldman's view to alchemy, a common ground for both, that makes Victor trust him. Without alchemy, it is possible that Victor may have never pursued discovering the boundry of life and death. Without the desire to discover how to bring inanimate objects back to life Victor might have never created the creature therefore prompting a total shift in the plot of the story. It is alchemy that allows the creation of the monster and allows the novel to continue the way Shelley initially wrote it.