'A Serpent to Sting You' - The Medical Practitioner Caught Between Curiosity and Monstrosity. Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau

Broders S (2013)

Publication Language: English

Publication Status: Accepted

Publication Type: Book chapter / Article in edited volumes

Publication year: 2013

Original Authors: Broders Simone

Publisher: Lit

Edited Volumes: The writing cure: literature and medicine in context

Series: Kultur- und Naturwissenschaften im Dialog. Natural Sciences and Humanities in Dialogue

City/Town: Münster

Book Volume: 2

Pages Range: 55-76

ISBN: 978-3-643-90402-7


There are merely two reactions to medical research in the nineteenth century: "the confident and the terrified".[1] Although the initiated of the physician's profession must inevitably take the confident approach, they constantly walk a fine line that separates admiration from terror, curiosity from monstrosity. Although by the beginning of the 19th century the stigma of the 'murderer' is attached to the profession of the surgeon,[2] paradoxically, a rising number of medical students flood universities for anatomy classes, driven by the "passion" of curiosity described by Victor Frankenstein, the desire to "pursue[..] nature to her hiding places".[3]

The characters of Frankenstein, Jekyll and Moreau have become paradigmatic for the transgression of those boundaries and the monstrosities they create in the process.[4] The medical practitioner is, first and foremost, an expert on the human body; however, he trades the respect he could receive from his colleagues at the discovery of a remedy or efficient surgical method for his "obsessive pursuit of […] Satanic knowledge",[5] a kind of knowledge that will enable him to even 'cheat death'.

Although Frankenstein is fascinated with the human body, he feels a paradoxical hatred of its shortcomings. However, the medical practitioner's curiosity also contributes to his own subjective fiction: it urges him to increase his already extensive knowledge of the human body, seeking eternal life in the fame of his creation, in order to gloss over the doctor's inability to face his own mortality.


For Jekyll, it is the social mimicry of late Victorian England that renders it impossible to openly confess his "gaiety of disposition" that would banish him from respectable society. Whereas Moreau could only have "purchased his social peace by abandoning his investigations",[6] Jekyll does so by denying part of his nature. Jekyll blames his selfishness for the failure of his medical experiment. Yet Frankenstein, even on his deathbed, is unable to refrain from the possibility that "another may succeed".[7] With Moreau, who has his unwilling 'patients' adore him as a deity, curiosity has turned into the ultimate monstrosity. Moreau produces chimeras in more than one way. By merging at least two different bodies into one, he creates hybrids. Yet by believing his detachment from compassion and ethics will be without consequence, he falls victim to the most frequent chimera in medical research, the illusion of complete control over nature. Although chimeras exist both in nature (e.g. twins, both of whom carry some cells of their sibling) and science (e.g. people who have received transplants, such as heart valves from pigs), research in this field raises doubts regarding unknown potential dangers and nourishes fears of human 'farms' where people are bred for spare parts, as suggested in M.M. Smith's 1996 novel Spares, adapted for the screen as The Island by Michael Bay in 2005. The mad medical scientist is ambiguously named 'Doctor Merrick', echoing both Moreau and Prendick, and the medical 'curiosity' Joseph Merrick, the severely deformed 'Elephant Man' of 19th-century London. The key to a compassionate curiosity seems to be Jekyll's realisation that he should have approached his endeavour "in a more noble spirit"; not for fame and fortune, but for philantropy.

[1] John Batchelor, H.G. Wells. Cambridge: UP, 1985. 17.

[2] According to Marshall, this stigma was reinforced by the circumstance of anatomists "waiting in the wings of the scaffold" at executions, and a rising number of 'resurrectionists' meeting the rising demand for dead bodies from questionable sources. Tim Marshall, "Frankenstein and the 1832 Anatomy Act". Gothick Origins and Innovations. Eds. Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994; 57-64; 57.

[3] Shelley, Frankenstein, 21, 32.

[4] Cf. Barbara Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[5] Cf. Barbara Benedict, "The Mad Scientist. The Creation of a Literary Stereotype". Imagining the Sciences. Expressions of New Knowledge in the 'Long' Eighteenth Century. Eds. Robert C. Leitz III, Kevin L. Cope. New York: AMS Press. 2004; 59-107. 60.

[6] H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Cirencester: The Echo Library, 2005; 70.

[7] Shelley, Frankenstein, 152.


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Broders, S. (2013). 'A Serpent to Sting You' - The Medical Practitioner Caught Between Curiosity and Monstrosity. Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau. In Lembert-Heidenreich Alexandra; Mildorf, Jarmila (Eds.), The writing cure: literature and medicine in context. (pp. 55-76). Münster: Lit.


Broders, Simone. "'A Serpent to Sting You' - The Medical Practitioner Caught Between Curiosity and Monstrosity. Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau." The writing cure: literature and medicine in context. Ed. Lembert-Heidenreich Alexandra; Mildorf, Jarmila, Münster: Lit, 2013. 55-76.

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