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Through the Microscope: a Study in Dissecting the Scientist Archetype

Nadia Vinogradova
Departments of Chemistry and English
Lake Forest College

Expanding Horizons


Etymologically, science is…

“knowledge (of something) acquired by study,” also “a particular branch of knowledge,” from sciens “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide, split, rend, cleave,” and also “to divide, separate.” Modern sense of “non-arts studies” is attested from 1670s.

Science implies “cutting” or “dividing” or categorizing knowledge. Science is a method we use to find meaning and knowledge in order to propagate an objective truth. An alternate method is literature, which pursues meaning and may relate subjective truth(s) by fiction or artificial associations such as symbolism. The scientist in his/her quest to isolate and distill truth is often portrayed in literature as an archetype, or a generic character-type universally recognizable for distinctive traits.

I embark to study a few portrayals of scientists in literature. These major works I have selected will illustrate the general portrayal of the scientist as literary archetype through three centuries, delineating the emergence of different qualities and the development of the scientist archetype in British literature. This is by no means a comprehensive study, which would be beyond my scale and my intellect. If you are looking for further reading, I suggest taking a look at the references at the end of this article, from which I leisurely plucked excellent ideas.

When Darwin contested Creationism with his Origin of Species (1859), science actively challenged the notion of humanity and the authority of God, which dictates that humans cannot seek to know everything, a gesture toward the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Many literary works delineate disastrous effects of science untempered by morality or flawed in its purposed pursuit of just such forbidden knowledge. The following traits marked the archetype of the scientist in literature in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Chronologically and therefore classically, the scientist figure emerges clearly in Shakespeare’s Prospero, of The Tempest, and in Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus. Prospero is a wizard who is transformed over the course of the play and whose salvation lies in his ability to embrace Christian values and morality by forgiveness. Prospero leaves his power and knowledge of magic on the island and returns to civilization, thereby saving his soul. In Marlowe’s play, Faustus transforms conversely: the notorious tradeoff wherein Faustus exchanges or sells his soul for knowledge (Deats). Curiously, Faustus can be argued to have abandoned books, or mere observation, and embarked on a proto-experimental path with the empirical Mephistopheles implying the danger inherent in experiment (Dartmouth).

Both Shakespeare and Marlowe characterize early “scientists,” the wizard and the scholar, who must choose between a pursuit of knowledge with its implicated doom or a return to religion and humanity. The first element in the scientist archetype is then a man with a moral dilemma and a thirst for power through knowledge, which is attained supernaturally (Hayes). There is no salvation for the scientist, as such—he must renounce the pursuit of knowledge and cease to be a scientist, or else remain faithful to science be damned, as Faustus, if he cannot. The first scientist figure cannot retreat to middle ground, for his knowledge is fraught with ambition and inevitably separates him from the rest of humanity and propels him into conflict with the Church or with civilization. For a humanist literature that encouraged questioning in all topics except the divine, an approach of curtailing scientists’ questioning the authority of God, and thereby the Church, suited both the movement and the safety of the writer.

Over a century past, Jonathan Swift uses the third book of Gulliver’s Travels to introduce a nation of literally ungrounded scientists in order to satirize the Royal Society of England. These scientists, the Laputans, have progressed to the empirical and experimental method and run such ridiculous experiments as illustrate Swift’s appraisal of my second attribute of the scientist archetype; the detached and unfeeling scientist whose experiments have no relation to reality, whose curiosity suspends him/her in a dreamworld. Such a characterization would place Lewis Carroll’s Alice, were she in another time, in the realm of this scientist archetype, which encompasses childlike curiosity about the world as created in the mind of the scientist, and a blatant disregard of objective reality. By the bye, any quest for truth in such a world is, by scientific standards, neither objective nor valid.

Another century past and written on the night of the full moon on a bet, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein heralds the classical mad scientist and my third attribute of the scientist archetype, the scientist who has lost control of his/her experiment. Through his traditional education and his dabbling in alchemy, Victor Frankenstein bridges the divide between the classical, mystical magic-figure and alchemist and the empirical scientist of the Enlightenment. From these traditions emerges the tormented scientist figure physically described as wild-eyed, with disheveled hair and pale mien, introduced to the narrator Walton as a sympathetic wretch. Walton describes Frankenstein, saying “…his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable” (Bloom).  Frankenstein is described as gentle, wise, of cultivated mind and eloquent speech. Yet he is eminently human and a flawed or tragic hero by virtue of his presumptuous ambition to “play God,” an element harking back to the first archetype.

Frankenstein tells the story of a failed experiment and its unanticipated and monstrous consequences. An example of a later iteration of this unconcerned or distracted archetype is Dr. Hoenikker in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Dr. Hoenikker inadvertently and post-mortem brings about the apocalypse through his own heedless experimental discovery—ice-nine. Another example is Andy Lewis. This archetype is sympathetic because the scientist in question embodies childlike curiosity and generates his own dreamworld, which leads him to ignore the moral dilemma and consequences of his experiments altogether until too late. When this scientist realizes what he has wreaked, he often “awakes” as though from a dream to regret his experiment and its consequences with horror and often helpless regret (Bloom). The third attribute, this belated realization and a decision to act on it, is really then just a logical consequence of the first and second attributes of a scientist who yearns for knowledge and experiments without boundary.

Redemption is not possible for Frankenstein, but his suffering is analogous to a penance for his sin of arrogance and presumption. His gesture toward redemption is still part of the third attribute of the scientist archetype, because at some point, the scientist must realize that he has lost control of his experiment and with this epiphany, choose either to pursue the villainous role of “mad scientist” or else attempt an elusive redemption. Telling of this choice and the frequent result thereof is the grimness of the genre of most of these examples – tragedy and (romantic) horror.

Robert Louis Stevenson painted another portrait of the mad scientist in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Doctor Henry Jekyll is a chemist, a bachelor of 50 who was “wild when he was young” and retreated to a life of cold, detached science, metaphysics. He prepares potions in order to “shake the very fortress of identity” (Stevenson). Jekyll’s quest to separate himself from Hyde is valid on the grounds that Jekyll is separating or cutting and classifying human nature, an act that gestures back to the definition of science. The object of the classification, however, renders the idea obsolete and introduces the fourth quality in the archetype of the scientist—the flawed idealist. Scientists are imperfect, they are human, and thereby they defy such strict categorization as Jekyll tries to impose on himself. Jekyll and Hyde attempt to isolate their natures but fail because Jekyll idealistically believes that he can isolate and reduce humanity to two separate elements. It is misguided idealism that is the downfall of the scientist as a character and of Jekyll. It is this idealism, as much as Jekyll’s selfishness and arrogance, that leads to his suicide.
















As an English and chemistry double-major, Nadia Vinogradova `13 knows the (mad) scientist archetype well.

Jekyll’s decision to cavort about town as Hyde is a caving to temptation, to inhabit a body younger, an identity unconnected to his own, a means to avoiding consequences of his actions. And Hyde is the character who scribbles in the margins, more than one-dimensional due to his energy, his will to live, at once child and monster, inhabiting the curious and immoral world of vice that unrestrained science unleashes in the repressed and civilized Dr. Jekyll who invites an ambiguity in his character even as he attempts to reduce and separate his humanity by drinking his potion. This ambiguity is a mark of the complexity and contradictions that arise in the scientist archetype. This ambiguity only continues to develop, merging the aforementioned traits of the scientist archetype against all attempts at scientific or literary categorization, mine included.

Another chemist, forensic scientist, drug abuser, and caustic intellect characterizes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective and a final and positive attribute of the scientist archetype in Sherlock Holmes. Up until this point, scientists in literature were often viewed as villainous, or aloof and emotionally lacking, or immoral, or unable to control their experiments (Hayes). Sherlock Holmes, as well as Doyle’s Professor Challenger and many of Verne’s characters, knows the limits of his knowledge and doesn’t let idealism cloud his judgment. In Holmes, Doyle casts the scientist as an adventurous, heroic figure who can use science to perform miraculous acts that may include saving lives, or on a larger scale, the world. Scientists or inventors suddenly live up to their potential of rescuing humanity, capturing criminals, even, as Hayes suggests, “ruling technocratic utopias” in science fiction of the following century (almost as often as creating dystopias to begin with). Sherlock Holmes employs the “science of deduction” and a background in chemistry to solve crimes logically, and he uses this method to anticipate the results of his experiments, which are grounded directly in application to reality, to solving crimes.

“The image of the mad scientist in popular literature was gradually replaced by a model of the scientist as hero and protagonist, which reflects the trend towards a more cerebral society,” claims Richard K. Ho in his article on Doyle’s portrayal of the scientist in Holmes. The majority of literature scientists, however, are portrayed with qualities of emotional deficiency, intellectual prowess, questionable morals, and a flaw, often arrogance or ignorance toward the consequences of their research, very often leading to their downfall. The scientist archetype has evolved into a more complex figure over time. In the vein of Immanuel Kant, pure reason must be supplemented by a moral regulator, or “categorical imperative,” which is independent of science (Hayes). Often these moral compasses need fine-tuning, and the scientist archetype fluctuates between mad villain, hero, and antihero, as illustrated by Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in all his iterations. The scientist archetype attributes flow fluidly one into the other without regard to my attempt at isolating them. Read as a comment on the fruitless endeavor of categorizing, in the fashion of Jekyll and Hyde, the fitting of the literary scientist into a concrete archetype.


(1997). Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Retrieved from Dartmouth University, Program on Mathematics Across the Curriculum Web site: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathCulture/4-14.html

Bloom, Harold (Ed.). (1987). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Deats, Sara Munson (Ed.). (2010). Doctor Faustus: A Critical Guide. London: CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Haynes, Roslynn. (1989). The Scientist in Literature: Images and Stereotypes – Their Importance. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 14(4), 384-398.

Ho, Richard K.. (2001). Through the Magnifying Glass. PBS: Masterpiece Theatre: The Hound of the Baskervilles. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/hound/ei_glass.html

Simes, Peter A.. Literature in the Age of Science: Technology and Scientists in the Mid-Twentieth Century Works of Isaac Asimov, John Barth, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. Denton, Texas. UNT Digital Library. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc30511/.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. (1981). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Bantam Books.


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