Mad Scientists in Literary History
The figure of the ‘mad scientist’ is present in many literary works, and its influence as an irresponsible character with an uncontrollable intelligence can be found in many others. But before explaining its origin, it seems convenient to give a proper definition of the term. For that, it may be used the online Oxford dictionary, which defines the ‘mad scientist’ as “a scientist who is mad or eccentric, especially so as to be dangerous or evil: a stock figure of melodramatic horror stories”. We may say then, that the two main characteristics of this kind of character are the obsessive behavior and the use of very dangerous methods. The origin of the ‘mad scientist’ can be located in the medieval alchemists. However, as Stiles explains, “the now-familiar trope of the mad scientist in fact traces its roots to the clinical association between genius and insanity that developed in the mid-nineteenth century” (319). That period, the Victorian era, is actually the key to understand the nature of this character. The circumstances, such as the rise of the industrialization or the resurgence of the Gothic fiction, made the authors write about the dangerous consequences of modern science’s experiments and the people behind them. And by this way, “such figures as the mad scientist were created not for entertainment reasons … but in a nineteenth-century literary response to the emergence of modern chemistry” (Schummer 100). As mentioned before, the idea of genius is essential to understand the creation of the ‘mad scientist.
Whereas the Romanticism idealized the poetic version of genius and the Enlightenment notion of it was a being directly inspired by God, Victorians focused on scientific prodigies. This kind of genius has “suppressed all human affections in the cause of science” (Schummer 113). At that time, any writer or expert seemed to failed in the attempt of describing ‘genius’, at least in a psychological manner, and it was often link with insanity. Victorians embraced the idea of the average man as the ‘ultimate man’ and “superiority and inferiority to the average are to be classed together as deviations from the normal” (Nisbet 325). Or as Stiles better explains, “all aberrations from the norm could be seen as pathological, including extreme intelligence” (322). She also adds that genius was at some point described “itself as a kind of hereditary, degenerate brain condition symptomatic of nerve disorder” (320). Of course, Victorians were not the first to correlate genius and mental illness. “This association began with classical authors, notably Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle” (Stiles 321). Along history, genius has been linked with other pathologies like monomania or hysteria, and although the Victorian era made easy an explanation for the association of genius and insanity due to its ideology, the fear of what deviates from the social conventions may be the principle reason.
The Time Traveller
The Time Machine (1895) is H. G. Wells’ first novel and also, is considered to be the first novel to deal with the time travelling issue. It tells the story of an inventor and his particular journey through time. Although a peculiar one, the Time Traveller can be categorized as a ‘mad scientist. It would be convenient to mention first the key to understand this character, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), as it “provides the formulation of the archetypal mad scientist as a dangerous figure who tended toward mental instability and social irresponsibility” (Toumey 416). Victor Frankenstein is the influence for all the ‘mad scientist’ that appeared in literature after Mary Shelley’s novel. In fact, Chew states that “Doctor Moreau of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau is an example of a mad scientist descended from the Frankenstein legacy. As attempts to create human-like creatures from animals, Doctor Moreau’s vivisection experiments similarly mirror Frankenstein’s” (3). But, whereas Doctor Moreau is a more prototypical ‘mad scientist’, following the characteristics of Frankenstein, the Time Traveller differs in some aspects. Frankenstein may not be the only inspiration for Wells. “Wells’ malevolent mad scientists … owe an intellectual debt not only to Huxley, but also to discussions of genius and insanity in late-Victorian issues of Mind” (Stiles 319). Being Aldous Huxley and his work another influence in Wells’ novels.
The first evidence of the similarities can be found in the first pages of The Time Machine, when the narrator exposes the excitement of the Time Traveller when he explains about time, the “Fourth Dimension” (4), as he talks about his theories “with a slight accession of cheerfulness” (4). This enthusiasm seems to be common to all ‘mad scientists’ because they are focus only in his own scientific work. And later, the narrator continued to give a description of such interesting character that fits in the archetypical mold of a ‘mad scientist’. “The fact is, the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness” (12). We can clearly find here that caution for people with a superior intelligence, that is exemplary of that period. “Remarkable Behavior of an Eminent Scientist” (14) said the Editor as thinking of a headline when the Traveller delayed the story to his guests. And by doing that, delaying the story, we have a wise narrative move and in addition, it helps to build the aura of mystery of the principle character. “He said not a word” (13), in spite of the men’s inquiries, and when he eventually says something is to extend the expectation: “I’m going to wash and dress, and then I’ll come down and explain things” (14). The most remarkable difference that makes the Time Traveller unique would be that in this story the ‘mad scientist’ is the hero and the man of action. “I mean to have a journey on my own account” (8) he says, and if there were any doubt of his intentions he adds, “I was never more serious in my life” (10). And as we find later during his visit to year 802.701, he saves Weena from drowning and tries to protect her again from the attack of the Morlocks. But far more interesting is the following quote in which he admits the nature of his journey: “… so with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity” (19). In contrast to Frankenstein and Doctor Moreau, he is not considered the villain at some point, and he is the one to participate in his own experiment, even with the detriment that he may not be believed. He is aware of that, as he expresses: “I cannot expect you to believe it” (83); or even: “I hardly believe myself” (84). It is different also the construction of the psychology of the character.
In both Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and The Island of Doctor Moreau, it is present a psychological approach of the duality of the mind as the creator identifies with the monster. They represent the good and the evil sides of men. In The Time Machine, we can find this externalized in the both races of the future, and verbalized by the own Time Traveller when he says: “my mind was already in revolution” (62). “After feeling initial disgust for the Morlocks (machinists and meat-eaters like himself) and condescension toward the Eloi (whose enervated spontaneity still highlights his own emotional sterility), the Traveller identifies with both in order to reintegrate these now “distinct animals” (Hennelly 161). They are not his creation but the future representation of his human nature and, “as indicated before, the Time Traveller must admit the Morlock side of himself and integrate this with his more deeply suppressed Eloi side” (Hennelly 161). At the end of the novel, the Time Traveller doesn’t trust in his own experience and he even says the key word for this analysis and what seems the only rational explanation. “Did I ever make a Time Machine, or a model of a Time Machine? Or is it all only a dream? They say life is a dream, a precious poor dream at times—but I can’t stand another that won’t fit. It’s madness” (84). But by this time, the reader’s sympathy has already been awakened as his human quality has been shown trough the emotions, the fear and the bravery despite being presented at first as a very intelligent man with lots of abstract theories.
These ideas and stereotypes of the ‘mad scientist’ are still present in fiction. And we even find nowadays the representation of a genius, especially in the case of a scientific genius, as a mad person. We owe this relation to the Victorian era, as mentioned before, and it was a response to the rise of scientific experiments and theories to show how dangerous is the combination of scientific knowledge and ambitious plans. In The Time Machine, Wells seems to defend a different ‘mad scientist’. Same extraordinary intelligence, same mad behavior and same ambitious plan, but in this case the author gives the character the humanity of a hero who is aware of the consequences of his experiment and questions himself whether it was real or a product of his madness. Also, he is very physical and an adventurer, what makes him a very unique ‘mad scientist’.
Chew, Hansel. The Progeny of Frankenstein: The Mad Scientist and His Creature. MA thesis, Oxford University, 2014.
Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “The Time Machine: A Romance of ‘The Human Heart’.” Extrapolation, vol. 20, no. 2, 1979, pp. 154-67.
Nisbet, John Ferguson. The insanity of genius and the general inequality of human faculty: physiologically considered. Ward & Downey, 1891.
Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mad_scientist. Accessed 18 Jan. 2018.
Schummer, Joachim. “Historical roots of the “mad scientist”: Chemists in nineteenth-century literature.” Ambix,vol. 53, no. 2, 2006, pp. 99-127.
Stiles, Anne. “Literature in Mind: HG Wells and the evolution of the mad scientist.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 70, no. 2, 2009, pp. 317-339.
Toumey, Christopher P. “The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 17, no. 4, 1992, pp. 411-437.