Between thick dungeon walls, a giant lies asleep. He’s chained to the ground, large limbs folded, enmeshed in a web of ropes, a blindfold over his closed eyes. Suddenly, as if touched by a flame, he awakes, and gazes around in amazement. He starts up, shreds the ropes entangling him, breaks chains, smashes walls, and rises to his feet. Towering over the world, shadow stretching out below, he calls out with a voice like thunder.
It could be an early scene in a monster movie. In fact, it’s a description of the French Revolution. Taken from the four thousand lines of rhyming couplets that comprise “The Botanic Garden” (1791) a mind-bending meditation on life and the universe written by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, the vignette represents collective action Leviathan-style, in the movements of an anthropomorphic embodiment of the people, dramatizing their uprising and their destruction of the Bastille. What happens if we place this Revolutionary Colossus in a kind of monstrous genealogy, culminating in what is arguably another representation of the French Revolution, Frankenstein’s creature?
A member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, Darwin wrote in an era when poet, scientist, and political commentator were hardly separable categories. So it is that in the half of “The Botanic Garden” called “The Economy of Vegetation,” Darwin recounted the beginning of the French Revolution as the story of a Colossus awakening from centuries of feudal slumber:
Long had the Giant-form on GALLIA’S plains
Inglorious slept, unconscious of his chains;
Round his large limbs were wound a thousand strings
By the weak hands of Confessors and Kings;
O’er his closed eyes a triple veil was bound,
And steely rivets lock’d him to the ground;
While stern Bastille with iron cage inthralls
His folded limbs, and hems in marble walls.
Touch’d by the patriot-flame, he rent amazed
The flimsy bonds, and round and round him gazed;
Starts up from earth, above the admiring throng
Lifts his Colossal form, and towers along;
High o’er his foes his hundred arms He rears,
Plowshares his swords, and pruning hooks his spears;
Calls to the Good and Brave with voice, that rolls
Like Heaven’s own thunder round the echoing poles;
Gives to the winds his banner broad unfurl’d,
And gathers in its shade the living world!
Darwin’s “Giant-form” is well beyond human scale. Above his enemies, the giant’s “hundred arms” brandish pruning hooks and plowshares, symbols of a universalized third estate. And though he sleeps on “Gallia’s plains,” the giant is not particularly French; he calls out to universal categories of the Good and the Brave. The vignette describes the awakening of a kind of everyman-Colossus, with no superpowers but the tools of manual labor in his (many) hands. This Colossus, we onlookers have no doubt, is ready to strike out on a path of cathartic destruction, toppling the old regime.
When Darwin imagined revolutionary France this way, he tapped into a broader cultural imaginary. Two years after the publication of “The Botanical Garden,” following artist-deputy Jacques-Louis David’s suggestion, the Jacobins chose Hercules as a symbol of revolutionary, republican France. For the most radical years of the revolution, Hercules replaced the human-scale Marianne as well as the female allegorical pantheon: Liberty, Justice, etcetera. In one sketch, Hercules holds two tiny female allegories in one hand, his trademark club in the other. Like Darwin’s giant, the Jacobin Hercules embodies the contradictions of a mythic everyman. David wanted “work” (travail) written on each hand. And in political cartoons, Hercules became a vrai sans-culotte—this Colossus is nothing other than your average working man, only larger.
But for all his ordinariness, the fact that this Colossus moved was wondrous, or monstrous, or both. “The tocsin and the cannon of alarm awakened [the people’s] patriotism, announcing that liberty was in danger,” declared Jacobin deputy Joseph Fouché, describing the purging of the moderate Girondins from the Convention, in late May and early June 1793: “The forty-eight sections armed themselves and were transformed into an army.” This was all a straightforward history, albeit recounted in a propagandizing register. But suddenly Fouché slipped into the present tense:
This formidable colossus is standing, he marches, he advances, he moves like Hercules, traversing the Republic to exterminate this ferocious crusade that swore death to the people.
The Colossus, made up of the forty-eight sections of Paris like so many body parts, on the march—is awe-inspiring and terrifying. In a sense, the sans-culotte Hercules is stepping in to fill a symbolic void at the heart of the new democratic order. But the Jacobin leaders, having brought a Colossus into being, share in the terror he inspires. Reflecting on this passage, Lynn Hunt writes, “the Terror was the people on the march, the exterminating Hercules. Hercules, the people, was in the eyes of the radicals who had called it into being a potential Frankenstein.” The comparison is tellingly anachronistic, reflecting more on Hunt’s assessment of the Jacobin Terror than on the way its architects viewed their creation. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, came decades after the Jacobins and, according to some readings reflected back on them. And like Darwin’s giant and Fouché’s Colossus, her creature is unnamed.
The crazed Dr. Frankenstein of the 1931 film adaptation watches the hand of his creature lift and tremble and exclaims, “Look, it’s moving. It’s alive!” That coming-to-life of an artificially assembled creature is the crux of the horror of Frankenstein in cultural memory. The animation of the revolutionary Colossus is likewise key to its appeal. When Fouché describes the Paris sections coming together to form a body, it’s the liveliness of that body, manifested in its movement, that both awes and terrifies. With Darwin too, the revolution begins when the giant awakes and stands.
What moves the monster? What is the animating force? In Frankenstein, though Shelley never made it explicit, it’s assumed to be a kind of galvanic electricity, a theory bolstered by Shelley’s extensive knowledge of contemporary debates over galvanism, or whether electricity might be the vital principle. In Darwin’s poem, too, composed decades earlier, electricity plays an animating role. “Touched by the patriot-flame” — scan back a few lines and we learn how this patriot-flame starts a revolution: “the patriot-flame with quick contagion ran / Hill lighted hill, and man electrised man.” Here Darwin describes the American Revolution. From hill to hill and from man to man, this American patriot-flame, with its “electrising” power, reaches the colossal being, chained up in the Bastille.
Placing the revolutionary Colossi in line with Frankenstein’s creature invites us to re-read Darwin and Fouché for the particular emotional register in which their creatures appear. The exercise reveals an inverse relationship between size and degree of horror. In Darwin, the giant is grand and glorious, the size of the earth itself; in Fouché he is scarier and smaller, traversing the republic on a ruthless exterminating mission. And in Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creature is somewhat larger than a man, and downright horrifying, doubly so because we sympathize with him. And there is something else in the shift from Darwin’s titanic giant, awakened by patriot-flame, to Shelley’s creature, jolted into life by a scientist in the grips of a feverish, misguided, creative impulsion. If for Darwin, revolution could be allegorized to the electrified awakening of an embodied third estate, then Frankenstein allegorizes a revolution stripped of both its epic scale and its promise. Our attention shifts from the patriot-flame and the Colossus to the “modern Prometheus” of Shelley’s subtitle, who gave fire to mankind and lived to regret it.
Samantha Wesner is a graduate student in history at Cornell and currently a Mellon Graduate Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, where she is at work on a dissertation on electrical vitalism and revolutionary political energy. You can find her on Twitter @sswesner.
Darwin, Erasmus. “The Botanic Garden. A poem: with philosophical notes.” London; Lichfield: J. Johnson; J. Jackson, 1789; 1791.
De Baecque, Antoine. The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Huet, Marie-Hélène. Mourning Glory: The Will of the French Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, 20th Anniversary Edition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984; 2004.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Second Norton Critical Edition. J. Paul Hunter, ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. [1818 text.]
 The rise and fall of Hercules as symbol of the French Republic over Marianne is described by Lynn Hunt in the chapter “The Imagery of Radicalism” in her well-known 1984 book Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution.
 Fouché, declaration to citizens in the department of the Aube, June 29, 1793 (Troyes). Quoted in Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, 20th Anniversary Edition (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984; 2004), 101.
 Hunt, 101.