Being afraid of the Machine? Alchemy, the Golem and Vampirism as Sources for Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2000 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Alchemy
2.1. Origin and contents
2.2. Fundamental Concepts of Alchemy
2.3. Frankenstein as an Alchemical Novel
2.3.1. Form
2.3.2. Content

3. The Golem
3.1. What is a Golem?
3.2 Features of the Golem in Frankenstein

4. Vampirism
4.1 Origin and Character
4.2. Vampirism in “Frankenstein”

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Life is a Dream. At least for the authors of the Romantic period including Mary Shelley. Inspired by a nightmare, she composed Frankenstein, representing the typical Gothic Novel of the Romantic Period, from a variety of sources ranging from the ancient Greeks to 19th century Europe. Three very important sources are Alchemy or Hermetic Philosophy, the Golem Legends and Vampirism. Since it is a product of Romanticism, the novel contains various topics of this period, i.e. the image of the Universal Man which is closely connected with the Greek legend of the god Prometheus who stole the fire from the Olympus to bring light to man and was therefore seriously punished. Other typical topics of Romanticism are Nature and the Exotic. A third feature is the supernatural or the “other side”[1].Myths and Legends have always been the most important means to express and interpret human fears and longings, in the Romantic period often taken up in relation to Industrialization and social development and the fear of a mechanistic society. Myth and Legend are two of the oldest genres of literature (including non-written literature as well). Especially Alchemy resembles various kinds of Myth. One is the cosmogonic Myth that describes the genesis of the entire world. A second kind of Myth is the Myth of cultural heroes. Although in Frankenstein the end is tragic because the heroic act of creation turns into a catastrophe, it is indeed a story that tells of a person who makes an invention originally expected to be profitable. Other myths also show up in Alchemy as well as in the concepts of the Golem and the Vampire, for example the Myths of birth and rebirth or the foundation Myths[2].The supernatural, the universal together with a sceptic attitude towards mechanical inventions is what connects the three important sources of influence on Frankenstein: Alchemy, the Golem and the Vampire, unifying nature and the supernatural, the ordinary and the exotic, this side and the other side, represent the search for universal knowledge and its consequences.

2. Alchemy

2.1. Origin and contents

Alchemy or Hermetic Philosophy as an all-embracing field of scientific study has various origins: Greek natural philosophy, Greek mythology, the Bible and the old Arabic sciences.[3] As a method of scientific study it was accepted up to the 18th century Alchemy was practised in two manners. The first is the true or hermetic mode, following the principles of imitating nature reasonably in the name of God and refraining from instrumentalizing magic arbitrarily for evil and selfish purposes as the second false or vulgar mode is described.[4] Alchemy rather aimed at synthesis, not at destruction. Chemical processes were mostly the main subject of study, including the experimental work in the laboratory as well as recording the work and its results. This was often done by ciphered letters that could only be understood by other alchemists for alchemy was a secret science. To avoid misuse the secrets were not to be revealed to everybody but only to the pupil or other alchemists.

2.2. Fundamental Concepts of Alchemy

Proceeding from the Aristotelian Doctrine that all things tend to reach perfection, hermetic philosophy is based upon the theory of seven hermetic principles.[5] The “Principle of Spirituality” contains the idea that there is an all-embracing spirit from which everything derived and which is to be found more or less easily in everything. Another idea is that everything is in motion, nothing stands still. This idea is anchored in the “Principle of Vibration”. Another principle is the “Principle of Polarity” which says, in the widest sense, that everything in the world has its counterpart. Vibration and polarity together bring forth another principle, the “Principle of Rhythm”. Every movement happens rhythmically in (at least) two directions. Therefore nothing can happen by accident. Everything happens within a chain of causations. This is called the “Principle of Cause and Effect”. The last principle is the “Principle of Gender”. It says that both male and female features can be found in everything. If these features are united universality is reached. It is the all-embracing spirit that represents the ultimate union. With these principles as a basis alchemical thought brings forth a certain imagery, that occurs again and again in Romanticism and especially in Frankenstein. This kind of philosophy, which stretches throughout the whole text, in mind and adding alchemical imagery one can conclude that Frankenstein is an “alchemical novel” in both, form and content.[6]

2.3. Frankenstein as an Alchemical Novel

2.3.1. Form

The first allusion to alchemy appears within the title. The name Frankenstein alludes to the ultimate goal, the former scientists were trying to reach: The discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone. It was said to be the medicine for any kind of illness and to give universal knowledge to him who is in possession of it. Its various functions are marked through a strong symbolism. It is referred to by several names, for example Tree, Child or Homunculus, Quintessence and Hermaphrodite. It is also said to be a kind of Eternal Light.[7] According to Greek mythology, the god who once brought light to man was Prometheus. In this context light can be interpreted as knowledge. Frankenstein who is named “The Modern Prometheus” in the subtitle, is obsessed with gaining knowledge and thus becoming god-like. A second kind of Promethean Myth , the Myth of Prometheus Plasticator who created a human being is also embedded in the novel.[8] Though imperfect Frankenstein discovered a way to create a human being not unlike the alchemical image of the homunculus. He gained knowledge. For it was forbidden knowledge he, like Prometheus, was punished for stealing the divine light and for creating a human being. Playing creator is only possible within certain borders and the result is imperfect.

The structure of the novel is also “alchemical”. Since alchemy aimed at observing, imitating and improving nature and not at destructing it, experiments were done in a certain mode, following the principle of Solve et Coagula[9]. It says that the alchemist gains knowledge while he observes the dissolving of a solid into a fluid substance (body into spirit). Afterwards the process is reversed. The substance is coagulated again. This process was repeated frequently, for the alchemist resumed that the more often a process is repeated, the purer the substance becomes. It is an imitation of the eternal circle of life and death. It also represents the hermetic principle of Gender. A metal is dissolved and coagulated frequently. Its male and female features are separated, purified and united again until the process results in the universal oneness of both, until it becomes gold. It is an imitation of creation. This analogy of man and creator, art and nature is theoretically possible but actually forbidden or at least not reachable totally and dangerous. The concept of Solve et Coagula is one of the main images of alchemy. In a wider sense Mary Shelley did the same. She observed and interpreted, dissolved and coagulated all her material into a novel which has proved to be universal in the sense of being an independent work fitting every point of history. She synthesized her material into a tale within a tale within a tale.[10] The story of the monster’s experiences is embedded in the narration of Frankenstein, which is itself embedded in the frame build by Walton’s letters to his cousin, in which he tells the story as the main narrator. This tale within a tale within a tale structure gives the story its synthetic character.

Hence follows a third point of reference to alchemy. It is the master-pupil-relationship in alchemical tradition. Like the alchemist, who only passed his knowledge on only to other members of this elite, Frankenstein tells his story to Walton. Likewise, the monster told Frankenstein his. As already mentioned Walton tells everything again to his cousin in letter-form. The letter was an important means of recording alchemical study. Usually ciphered, alchemical writings themselves merged into a form of literary genre[11]. Frankenstein therefore is as well a piece of literature that is influenced by alchemy as an alchemical text itself. However, the important reason in the conception of story-telling in the novel is the shift from the oral (Frankenstein and the monster), to the written tradition. This shift originally happened during old English times. It is used as a symbol for the changes of society around Mary Shelley’s time and for the repetitions in the everlasting circle of life. Besides Walton, Victor is also a representative of these changes. J.M. Smith shows this with the help of “Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts in scientific knowledge”[12].Kuhn defines a paradigm as a “model from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research”. In “Frankenstein” the paradigm shift is the change from the old sciences, including the “electricians” to the modern form of physics and chemistry. Frankenstein is a figure that marks this paradigm shift. He represents both, the old and the new sciences. Therefore Smith concludes that the paradigm shift is incomplete. Because of that the novel rather marks a turning point in history than a dystopia.

In contrast to the allusions to alchemy in the form of the novel, the direct influences of alchemy on its content are more obvious.


[1] „“Romanticism“, Microsoft® Encarta

[2] „Mythology“, Microsoft Encarta

[3] Gebelein, s.99 ff

[4] Gebelein, p.12ff

[5] Gebelein, p.41ff

[6] Gebelein, p.222

[7] Abraham, p.145ff

[8] Smith

[9] Abraham, p. 186f

[10] Brooks, p.81

[11] Gebelein, p.221

[12] Smith


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University of Leipzig – Institute for Anglistics
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Being Machine Alchemy Golem Vampirism Sources Mary Shelley Frankenstein Machines Literature



Title: Being afraid of the Machine? Alchemy, the Golem and Vampirism as Sources for Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"