Catherine notes that “it was highly ‘inappropriate’ to give a grieving woman that task of simulating life.” But like us, she can’t resist wanting to see what this thing can do. The violation of that line between animate and inanimate haunts her, just as it disturbs Henry in his journal. They both know the way grief drives us toward inventions that can’t satisfy the heart. “Really, truly,” she thinks, “anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born.” Dr. Frankenstein to the aviary — stat!
Henry realizes too late that he’s employed a craftsman who has something much more radical in mind than a mechanical duck. Is it blasphemous to create such artificial life? And is 19th-century Germany a safe place to be scratching at superstitions? As the gears of this story start to spin, I worried about losing a finger amid all the flying parts: the Brothers Grimm, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Charles Babbage’s calculating machine, the internal combustion engine, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, global warming, Prince Albert, extraterrestrial life.