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The Madness of the Scientist Archetype

Erica Ostlander delves into one of the most famous but least appreciated character archetypes in art



If someone was granted the ability to bend universal laws to fulfil their passing whims and greatest desires--would this be seen as a blessing or a curse? This hypothetical person would be aware of the innate limitations caused by their own humanity, making them desperate to shed their mortality for a god-like status. This desperation is what sparked society’s fascination with science and the need to go beyond what can be seen with the naked eye. The industrial revolution changed the common understanding of human capabilities, pushing writers to explore technology in their work as means of further utilising their imagination in an almost realistic manner. This has inspired a discussion of mortality and progressivism in literature, which continues to evolve with the turn of each century. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein focuses on a scientist who is arguably well-meaning, a case study of how curiosity killed the cat and a perfect reflection of society’s obsession with the possibilities brought forth by science. The novel predicted the battle between science and humanity in World War II, as the undertaking of human experimentation and the creation of lethal weapons caused an influx of morally ambiguous scientist characters in literature. I have always believed that the only thing fictional in any given story is its surface level, as all examples of literature serve as reflections of reality to varying degrees. This is why examining the popularity of character tropes will help show truths about people, like humanity’s fear of their own power which has stretched across countless lifetimes.

Mary Shelley, the sci-fi-horror-tragedy-drama spearhead of the literary world, wrote Frankenstein, otherwise known as The Modern Prometheus, a name fitting of humanity’s fascination with playing the role of a god. Prometheus was a god of fire, a notable trickster in Greek mythology, and recognised as an ally for humankind. He is known for stealing the eternal fire from Mount Olympus and then gifting this fire to the earth, allowing people to cook, defend themselves, and advance society. However as the myth goes, Prometheus was tortured by Zeus for his actions, chained to a rock and forced to watch his own liver be repeatedly pecked out by a bald eagle every night. As gruesome as that is, it shows how attempts to manipulate the natural world, or the use of “fire”, is closely followed by suffering and the expectation of divine punishment. The punishment Prometheus received from the gods speaks to the guilt humanity carried during the rapid progression of scientific discovery, as true believers in science were considered pariahs in a spiritually driven society. This conflict manifested itself in Shelley’s work with repeated scorn of Frankenstein’s creation and the several attempts to burn the supposedly hellish creature at the stake. The trickster archetype used in this story helps paint a picture of an amoral person, explaining why even modern depictions of mad scientists can not be categorised by the binary of good and evil, but more so they are curious about what happens when one stirs the pot. By referring to her story as the “modern” version of this tale, it is easy to see how repetitive society is, as there will always be a modern take on the myth of Prometheus, despite how much further we look into the future, as progress is inevitable just as human existentialism is.

Existentialism emerged due to an intense focus on defining the purpose of existence until people started to reach the conclusion that there may not be one at all. This philosophical movement began mid-to-late 19th century, and where an ideology hinged on the idea of taking control of your own life and acting on your own free will began to take shape. The 1927 science fiction film Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang, showing a world where a select group of people in the higher class were able to experience the finer things in life and all the luxuries available to them by forcing a worker class to operate the technology needed for this. This continues the line of questioning of taking control of life, while showing human’s potential for evil. There was a character also following the mad scientist archetype named Rotwang, who creates a robot in the same likeness of his lost love. Making a long story short, this robot ended up being used for evil and attempted to lead the workers to their own deaths. Again, we see the downfall of a character once they attempt to take control of life, undergoing the process of birth and death at their will. The film was heavy with biblical references, showing characters who lost their way by rejecting religion. Rotwang served as one of the story’s villains, which helped show society’s inner turmoil of whether to pursue the advancement in technology or to remain still with their values. It is commonly said that Lang predicted many aspects of World War II, such as the cruel and unethical human experiments done in Nazi Germany. This line between scientific exploration and obscene examples of cruel manipulation is one that has scared most of humanity, but writers are often fascinated with it, using art as the means of navigating the truly dark side of society.

The burden of knowledge can only be explored through the creation of a character that seems to know everything, a person a mental step above an old and tired society. However, these characters are often seen as evil, forfeiting anything that makes them appear human. This has been seen physically with experiments being conducted on themselves like Dr. Curt Conners in the Spiderman franchise taking the appearance of a lizard hybrid, or Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly. Nonetheless, my favorite type of mad scientist character is the one that truly embraces existentialism, a care-free attitude aspiring towards neither good nor evil but just savouring their own freedom, like the infamous Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty. Character tropes are never repeated by mistake, but are really a piece in a much larger historical puzzle, allowing us to use film and literature to see why humans are pondering the same questions about life and death to this day.


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