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Dissecting Anatomy LiteratureTim Marshall, Murdering To Dissect: Grave-robbing, Frankenstein and The Anatomy Literature. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 7190 4543 (paperback). Price: £15.99.

  • Mark Sandy

…plus d’informations

  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

Corps de l’article

A broad spectrum of academic disciplines ranging from literary, linguistic, historical, political and psychological studies form the critical lens through which Tim Marshall views Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its social context. This theoretical framework draws upon Bakhtin's linguistic idea of the sign as bearer of diverse social meaning, Foucault's Crime and Punish and, more importantly, the lesser known 'mass psychology' of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Marshall argues, acquires an 'anatomy storyline' through the historical events which occurred after its first publication in 1818 and surrounded its second and third editions in 1823 and 1831. These historical events of the 1820's witnessed increasing public concern about the science of anatomy and its collusion with grave-robbers. Pressure mounted for legislation to regulate these practices, culminating with the Burke and Hare scandal.

Marshall places Frankenstein amidst the 'medical realities of the day', pointing out that John Abernethy, a year after its first edition, argued for the Royal College of Surgeons' "acquisition of unclaimed pauper corpses in order to advance anatomical research". 'The Modern Prometheus', Mary Shelley's subtitle, alludes to an electrical shock treatment for reviving patients, known as Galvanism or 'medical Prometheanism'. For Marshall, Frankenstein is a 'proleptic allegory of the 1832 political marriage between the aristocracy and the upper ranks of the middle class', cemented in the Great Reform Bill of that year, which masked the passing of the Anatomy Act.

This study's reconstruction of events before and during the 1820's is indebted to Ruth Richardson's historical analysis in Death, Dissection and the Destitute, emphasising the political significance of the Anatomy Act over the better known Reform Bill. Marshall's account of the social and political climate, which produced the acts of 1832, is not centred solely on Frankenstein, but incorporates a discussion of literary works by Blake, De Quincey, Walter Scott, Crabbe, Dickens and Gaskell.

Victor Frankenstein's chosen career as an anatomical surgeon, Marshall reminds us, aligns him with a profession associated with a social stigma in the public mind. For the purpose of dissection, since the 1790's, surgeons had relied upon the gallows as a source for their corpses. The connection between hangman and surgeon was given a further 'punitive dimension' by a Parliamentary Act in 1752, which allowed the Bench, when issuing sentences for death, to order a 'public dissection of the criminal's body in place of a gibbeting'. This background informs Walter Scott's sympathy, in his Journal, over the Edinburgh 'bodysnatching scandal', with the commonly held belief that Dr. John Knox, who benefited from the bodysnatchers' activities, was an "accessory to the crime of murder". The murders Burke and Hare committed are, in Marshall's view, the 'logical conclusion' of the grave-robbing trade. A surgeon's status was ambivalent; on one hand, he was a professional who aspired to social respectability and polite society and, on the other, trafficked in the dark underworld of immorality, grave-robbing and even murder.

Marshall reads Knox's silent complicity with the crimes of Burke and Hare into Frankenstein, viewing Victor as 'progressively encumbered by a criminal association which he cannot, or will not, publicly declare' and unable, after the creation, to free himself from the publicly unknown Creature. The Creature represents Victor's involvement with the bodysnatching fraternity, because Mary Shelley's 'monster' is both a multitude of dead bodies and the murderer of William, Clerval and Elizabeth. The Creature's choice of victim transgresses 'class boundaries' highlighting, for Marshall, the 'social hypocrisy' of the Anatomy Act, which advocated using the bodies of the poor for dissection, as 'middle class bodies' would be the '"wrong" class of bodies for the surgeon'. Victor's inability to keep his promise of a mate for the Creature plays out the middle class break of faith with the working class in 1832, leading to their final betrayal by the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Although Victor does not 'recognise himself as the father of the being he has created', the Creature's desire to establish a 'relation' with him is crucial in light of the anatomy legislation of 1832. Under new regulations a pauper body could only be buried and avoid dissection if the 'bona fide status of the relative, or relatives' could be established. Consequently, Marshall argues that Victor's 'broken promise in effect precipitates all the bodies which compromise "the monster" into the impending dissection category'. In this context Frankenstein's two narratorial voices of Victor and the Creature make a different ideological 'claim' on the novel's two women. Both Elizabeth and Justine 'are the products of an order of benevolent paternalism' and serve as a comment on the 'making-and-then-revoking of the bargain between the two men'. Marshall offers Bakhtin's notion of the 'multi-accented' sign to justify a multi-layered meaning to both the use of 'claim' in Frankenstein and to the 'political allegory' he attributes to the text at large.

The Creature's desire to have Frankenstein acknowledge him as father or to have a mate is interpreted as a bid for legal respectability. Marshall suggests, in light of the new anatomy legislation, that the Creature's demand 'on Frankenstein sees him trying to secure what was to become the only mechanism of escape from the dissection constituency recognised by the new law: the claim of a relative'. Mary Shelley's Creature wants to attain a 'human identity' through a legal recognition he is always denied and so, in Canetti's analysis, he enacts the 'arche-command' of the 'original flight-command'. Both Frankenstein and the Creature are seen in flight during the course of the novel. Victor flees his creation, as he is 'haunted by the association with absolutist power which the surgeons needed to expunge from their public image'. The Creature flees, having murdered, because in a 'historical context his crimes qualify him for dissection, were he to face the law'. Following Canetti's theory, which anticipates Foucault's account in Crime and Punish, Marshall states that "[f]light is the final and only appeal against a death sentence".

Canetti's account of 'command' asserts that "the death threat can never be entirely eliminated from power", but that through "social evolution...virtually nothing remains of the original threat or message to flee". The 'command' is domesticated from a 'bestial' death threat into a 'guarantee of food', as an incentive to encourage obedience. Marshall identifies this 'transformation' in 'the legislative move to break the association of the surgeons with the gallows'. Oliver Twist and Frankenstein provide a commentary, for Marshall, on 'how 1832-34 is a key period in the domestication of command', represented by a 'transition from absolutism to an early phase of a consumer-orientated society'.

Marshall closely adheres to Richardson's account of the coach scene in Oliver Twist, reading the "travellers abuse [of] him" as symbolic of an ideological shift to helping the "'deserving poor' [which] involved the imposition of social and political value judgements on the distribution of poor relief". By, contrast, Frankenstein's coach scene is an encounter between 'two social equals', Frankenstein and Clerval, and is viewed as the 'ideological inverse' of Dickens's scene. A parallel is drawn between the end of 'benevolent paternalism' with the introduction of the 1832 Anatomy Act and Victor's ironic encounter with Clerval, who is 'a benevolent version of Frankenstein as he might have been and never can be', after his rejection of the Creature. Consequently, Frankenstein as anatomist receives delivery of the 'corpses of William, Clerval and Elizabeth' from the Creature.

Equally, Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, first appearing in 1841, has a 'special relationship to the changing culture' as its story, according to Marshall, 'doubles as a representation of the two historical phases either side of the 1832, absolutism and domestication'. The exchange between Dennis and Tappertit is a 'key detail', which compounds the executioner with the surgeon in accordance with the 'popular perception' of surgeons. Marshall brings into play Canetti's claim that the individual receiving a 'command' is left with a 'sting of command', which must be passed onto a 'social inferior'. In Barnaby Rudge, Mr. Dennis is the only character to 'enjoy the executioneer's special exemption from the sting of command', because he is 'acting under orders'. Unfortunately, Tappertit has endured twelve years of subordination under Varden and has 'stored up command after command, order after order, without an outlet to get rid of them'. Tappertit's abuse of his high ranking uniform symbolises his desire to ascend within the social hierarchy 'without effort or discipline'. Migg's stays single and self-reliant, staying 'just outside the category of the improvident poor', whereas Tappertit's involvement with the riots leads to the loss of both his legs and reduces him to "begging" Varden for relief from "utter destitution". The 'sting of command' must either emerge through a 'passing-on mechanism', or by 'paying back' to social superiors what has been suffered as a host of the 'sting' of their 'commands'. Tappertit can only achieve the latter through a participation in the rioting crowd, which Marshall equates with Mary Shelley"s Creature as 'a mass of bodies long bound over to proclaim the truth of crime and power'.

Marshall's section, entitled 'The Medical Gaze and Popular Culture', examines eighteenth century anatomical practices and the public's widespread hostility toward the surgeons. A discussion of Hogarth's 'The Reward of Cruelty' illustrates both the association between the surgeons and the gallows existed 'as early as the 1750's and the exclusion of the crowd 'to contest the proceedings'. Crucial to Marshall's reading of Frankenstein, at this stage, is the 'less frequent' and superstitious performance of a' gallows wedding', involving a petition for the 'malefactor's reprieve with a promise of marriage' from a 'wedding women dressed in white'. Such a superstition, Marshall argues, informs the Creature's murder Elizabeth on her wedding day, which 'formalises her membership of the family'. Similarly, Justine is condemned by the Creature's 'claim' on her as 'lover and bride', who frames her for William's murder and sends her to the gallows.

This is followed by a further cultural and historical exploration of the early nineteenth century, giving particular attention to the resurrectionist culture. Marshall's argument encompasses a wide range of material, including Southey's 'The Surgeon's Warning", Godwin's 'Essay on Sepulchres', Southwood Smith's 'The Use of the Dead to the the Living' and accounts concerning Joanna Southcott's dissection. Frankenstein's 1831 edition is viewed in context with the spread of 'burkophobia', 'cholerophobia' and Bentham's utilitarianism. Frankenstein's decision to remain silent about the Creature is what leads to his social isolation, manifest in his fear of crowds. Marshall reads this silence as Mary Shelley's critique of the secrecy involved in the correspondence between Bentham and Peel over the proposals for an anatomy legislation.

Marshall is at pains to remind us that the 'metamorphosis' Frankenstein underwent over its three editions secured Mary Shelley's novel a place amongst 'public discourse in the late 1820's' and that the novel can be 'read as such'. Murdering To Dissect's interpretation is often illuminating about the 'script which history put into the tale of Frankenstein'. Yet this kind of approach has tendencies to privilege history and culture over literature, valuing literary works for what a critical 'autopsy' might reveal about contemporary social, political, and cultural issues of the day. Marshall places Frankenstein under the gaze of 'public discourse' to perform a dissection of its textual body.