Preformationism epigenesis and Frankenstein

It has been pointed out that, despite the development of obstetrics in this period, many of the clinical aspects of pregnancy were little understood. There was little knowledge of the causes of foetal death, of miscarriage or of deformity at birth. However, the understanding of very early life (embryology) was changing rapidly and it was a subject which was fiercely debated. In the seventeenth century the invention of the microscope had enabled close study of the ovum and spermatozoon, and while scientists such as the Dutch naturalist

Jan Swammerdam had claimed to see complete miniature organisms in the ovum, others claimed that such organisms could be found in the sperm. Either way, it was believed that, at conception, the new individual was completely developed or 'preformed', and that during gestation it simply increased in size. In its most extreme variant, the doctrine of preformationism held that every human being was already formed in the first human creature. In the eighteenth century, however, the alternative theory of epigenesis was proposed, that is, that the various organs of the body are not all present at conception, but appear gradually during the formation of the foetus. Preformationism, with its deterministic religious overtones, was attractive to those of a conservative temperament such as Denman, who deployed the ingenious concept of 'unfolding' in an attempt to reconcile preformationism with what was then known of early embryonic development:

It has been thought that some of the parts of the foetus were formed before the rest, and much labour hath been bestowed in ascertaining the order of their formation. But, as the skin of the smallest embryo which can be examined is perfect, it may be presumed that what has been called addition or coaptation of parts, is, in fact, nothing more than the expansion or unfolding of parts already formed. (p. 204)

Denman's intervention draws attention to an aspect of the problem, which we might now cast in terms of genetic rather than divine determination. To what extent is a developmental blueprint laid down at the moment of conception? How far do genes determine development, and what is the role of the environment, intra-uterine as well as postnatal?

Hunter's work seemed to contradict Denman's views. The last plate of the Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi (Plate 34) depicts conceptions at three, four and five weeks, and Hunter's gloss on the five-week embryo reads: 'The head of the foetus was longer than the trunk: the arms and legs had shot out but a little way: the abdominal viscera were not covered; the darker part of these was the red liver: there being no navel-string, the foetus was attached at its abdomen to the inside of the amnion and of the chorion, which were contiguous at that place.' Hunter's descriptions (and visual depictions) of partially formed organs may have influenced Erasmus Darwin, who was one of the most energetic exponents of the epigenetic view. In Zoonomia, Darwin scoffed at the 'ingenious philosophers' who supposed that all human progeny could have been contained in the first human being, for as these included embryons are supposed each of them to consist of the various and complicate part of animal bodies: they must possess a much greater degree of minuteness, than that which was ascribed to the devils that tempted St Anthony; of whom 20,000 were said to have been able to dance a saraband on the point of the finest needle. (Vol. 2, p. 490)

He went on to propound his theory of growth in utero via the 'apposition of parts', arguing that the child developed not through the extension of an already existent form, but through an accretive process which, crucially, involved some degree of interaction with the uterine environment:

With every new change, therefore, of organic form, or addition of organic parts, I suppose a new kind of irritability or of sensibility to be produced; such varieties of irritability or of sensibility exist in our adult state in the glands; every one of which is furnished with an irritability, or a taste, or appetency, and a consequent mode of action peculiar to itself.

In this manner I conceive the vessels of the jaws to produce those of the teeth, those of the fingers to produce the nails, those of the skin to produce the hair...These changes I conceive to be formed not by elongation or distention of primeval stamina, but by apposition of parts; as the mature crab-fish, when deprived of a limb, in a certain space of time has power to regenerate it. (Vol. 2, pp. 493-4)

Darwin emphasised the fact that the foetus could 'select' from the nutritive particles provided by the mother, thus construing the foetus as an active participant in gestation. However, by the same token, its development could be compromised by an inadequate maternal environment: it could 'be affected by the deficiency of the quantity of nutrition supplied by the mother, or by the degree of oxygenation supplied to its placenta by the maternal blood' (Vol. 2, p. 527).

Darwin's theory of generation was prescient and unusual in its emphasis on the potentially adverse effects the intra-uterine environment could have on foetal development. His work was known to both Percy and Mary Shelley, who refer to his poem The Botanic Garden as the source of conversations about the origin of life. He is also referred to in Percy Shelley's Preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein (written as from the author) and Mary Shelley's Preface to the revised 1831 edition. It was Ellen Moers who first argued that Frankenstein should be read as 'a birth myth' and since then there have been numerous readings of the creation of Frankenstein's monster in relation to real or imagined pregnancy. While Moers linked the text's theme with the biographical context of Mary Shelley's 'failed' pregnancies, later critics, such as Mary Jacobus and Barbara Johnson, have focused on Shelley's elision of the female body in the text. Alan Bewell has argued, however, that Frankenstein offers a meditation on the cultural linking of monstrosity and birth and 'an ambiguously female-based theory of creation in the Romantic discourse on the imagination', based on the notion of the creative power of the pregnant woman's imagination.46 I would suggest that rather than exploring the creative power of the pregnant woman's imagination, Frankenstein considers the potentially destructive power of an inadequate uterine environment. Frankenstein works to create his 'child' by methods which echo Darwin's description of gestation taking place through the 'apposition of parts', and the whole process of construction resembles the physiologically-based descriptions of the epigenesists, whereby the child develops through 'successive accretions'. However, as Darwin points out, this process is not predetermined, but depends on a delicate balance of factors: the mother must provide the appropriate environment for the foetus. It is this that Frankenstein so signally fails to do, as he creates an artificial womb without light, while he himself works without nourishment, in an 'emaciated' state:

In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials ...47

Small wonder that when the monster is 'born' it has the waxy appearance and 'dull yellow eye' of a sickly, undernourished baby. The landscape in which Frankenstein 'labours' at his second creation, a mate for the monster, is similarly marked by darkness and paucity of nourishment. It is a bare island on which '[t]he soil was barren, scarcely affording pasture for a few miserable cows, and oatmeal for its inhabitants, which consisted of five persons, whose gaunt and scraggy limbs gave tokens of their miserable fare' (p. 158). If Frankenstein had allowed the female monster to be born, we can infer, her 'scraggy limbs' would also have offered tokens of her 'miserable fare'.

We might therefore want to propose an alternative to the conventional linking of the monstrosity of Shelley's text with the articulation and/or critique of male structures of desire. Mary Jacobus argues that the novel is structured round Victor's 'intense identification with an oedipal conflict . at the expense of identification with women', and Elizabeth Bronfen suggests that Frankenstein's monster 'competes with and repeals nature in an attempt to eliminate maternity entirely'.48 Such positions assume that Shelley's main preoccupation is with male desire (and thus recast earlier readings of the text as a critique of male rationalism). However, one could turn this round and read the text in terms of female desire and its corollary, female fear. This would radically shift our reading of the terror which runs through the text and which is most vividly expressed in Victor's celebrated dream:

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of flannel. (p. 57)

Rather than reading this in terms of male desire/fear of the maternal, we might do so in terms of female desire/fear. Specifically, we might read it in terms of fear of maternal failure, fear of being the bearer of death while desiring to give life. The worms within the shroud might thus figure harmful forces within the generative female body, more terrible than grave-worms because feeding on life. The deadly embrace with the mother might represent not a desire to eliminate the maternal but fear of standing in the place of the mother. To occupy this place is to risk not only one's own death, but that of the child one carries. Mary Wollstonecraft underlined this when she wrote of her fear that her emotional state in pregnancy would lead to her 'tormenting, or perhaps killing, a poor little animal, about whom I am grown anxious and tender'.49 Although Shelley draws on epigenetic theory rather than the earlier notion of maternal impressions, she similarly explores in her novel the fear of 'tormenting, or perhaps killing' the child in utero.

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