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The following extract is from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I'd like to know:

  1. What the "it" refers to. Does the "it" refer to the circumstances in general? If so, in what ways were the circumstances different?

  2. Whether "the science" refers to modern natural philosophy or alchemy.

Besides, I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different, when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the enquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.

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"It" does not refer to anything; it is an impersonal pronoun that is required by the syntax but does not have any real meaning. It is basically the same "it" as in "It's ten o'clock."

By "the science", the narrator means science in general, which for him apparently includes both "natural philosophy" and alchemy. It is not obvious why he would write "the science" instead of simply "science", unless the addition of the definite article is intended to reflect German usage, according to which the article is required ("die Wissenschaft" = science).

The quest for immortality or the prolongation of life had been part of Chinese alchemy, Indian alchemy and Medieval European alchemy. The narrator is more interested in this type of quest than in natural philosophy that professor Krempe expects him to study.

The German theologian, physician and alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel (1673 – 1734), who was born at Frankenstein Castle and may have been a source of inspiration for Mary Shelley, also attempted to created an "elixir of life".

Update in response to comments by Apollyon:

"It" does not appear to refer to "modern natural philosophy": the passage contrast contemporary trends in science ("natural philosophy", chemistry) with the older and outdated alchemy. The "difference" is the shift from alchemy to more modern ideas, which includes the abandonment of the search for elixirs and treatments that promise eternal life. For this reason "the science" in "the masters of the science" either refers to science in general (as stated above) or it refers to alchemy because the narrator is (linguistically) getting his reference wrong.

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  • What is the difference described by "It was very different"? – Apollyon Jun 30 at 1:31
  • Elsewhere in the novel, when science in general is intended, "science" minus the definite article is used. By linguistic criteria alone, I'm inclined to treat "the science" as referring to modern natural philosophy, as they are immediately close in the context. But it's also probably that Shelley got it wrong; modern scientists did not seek immortality or power. It was the alchemists who did that. – Apollyon Jun 30 at 7:08
  • Have you considered the possibility that Mary Shelley was a writer plagued by muddled thought, or Frankenstein is a muddled piece of writing plagued by layers of edition by her husband Percey Shelley? – Apollyon Jun 30 at 7:35
  • @Apollyon The passage contrast contemporary trends in science ("natural philosophy", chemistry) with the older and outdated alchemy. The "difference" is the shift from alchemy to more modern ideas, which includes the abandonment of the search for elixirs etcetera that promise eternal life. – Tsundoku Jun 30 at 8:26
  • The passage as written is faulty in organization. It should have begun with a description of what medival alchemists used to pursue, followed by the claim that things were different now, and finally a description of what modern scientists aimed to do. – Apollyon Jun 30 at 8:31

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