The mad scientist figure appears in Gothic fiction after the Romantic period, reflecting Victorian society's fascination with science and their fear that scientific knowledge would lead to the destruction of society and morality. The roots of the mad scientist are surprisingly ancient. He is most closely descended from the kabbalists and alchemists of the middle ages; even in the Faust legend, writers had begun to develop the notion that any intrusion into the area of universal knowledge was an unholy act; condemned by the church just as much as black magic, performing autopsies, or challenging the purposes of the divine. Indeed, the sinfulness of the mad scientist may well be descended from the hubris of Icharus and Daedalus in Ovid's Metamorphoses; his inborn pride and quest for knowledge parallels Daedalus' efforts defy natural law by taking to the sky.
The mad scientist’s irrationality derives from his inability to conform to societal order and institutionalized law. He is a figure of horror because he cannot be contained by the status quo. The mad scientist indulges in antisocial behavior, staying isolated and working apart from the rest of society. He is inconsistent with the principles of reason, inventing a field of study that goes against known scientific theories and is impossible rationally. Examples of such fields and inventions include Victor Frankenstein's Galvanism, Jekyll's Chemical Transformation, and Stapleton's Fluorescent Phosphorus Compound.
The mad scientist is also a Gothic investigation of the figure of the scientist as hero, which was popular in the nineteenth century. Especially towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British found it increasingly difficult to think that they were inevitably progressive. The mad scientist’s forays into science started revealing bodily and moral degeneration, reflecting Victorian fears that civilization was declining instead of progressing.
In Gothic fiction, the mad scientist is intimately related to two figures through doubling tropes: the Monster and the Rational Scientist. The Monster is the Mad Scientist’s creation, but also provides a dialectical relationship that suggests both monster and creator (who is desirous and willing to transgress) are Freudian projections of desires that transgress the boundaries of the status quo sexually, morally, legally and so on. The rational scientist is usually the hero working against the mad scientist’s villainy, the positive anti-thesis who saves society from the Monster created by the mad scientist. However, the doubling also highlights similarities between the Rational and Mad scientists, even as they purportedly show differences. For example, Conan Doyle’s Stapleton uses the same logic and strategic cunning that is characteristic of Sherlock Holmes to outwit Holmes in London. The doubling functions to show that both the Mad and Rational Scientists are not two separate entities, but two sides of the same coin. The mad scientist demonstrates the self within that is feared because it is creative, yet libidinous and difficult to control.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University and Ann Koh, National University of Singapore
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York : Facts on File, 2005. Print.