Frankenstein: TechnologyIn Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, written in the latenineteenth century by Mary Shelley, Shelley proposes that knowledge and itseffects can be dangerous to individuals and all of humanity. Frankenstein wasone of our first and still is one of our best cautionary tales about scientificresearch.. Shelley’s novel is a metaphor of the problems technology is causingtoday. Learn from me. . . at least by my example, how dangerous is theacquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes hisnative town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than hisnature will allow (Shelley 101)The popular belief of how Frankenstein came to be written derives fromShelley herself, who explains in an introduction to the novel that she , herhusband Percy Shelly, and Lord Byron set themselves the task of creating ghoststories during a short vacation at a European villa.
According to Shelley, theshort story she conceived was predicated of the notion as the eighteenth becamethe nineteenth century that electricity could be a catalyst of life.
in herintroduction she recalls the talk about Erasmus Darwin, who had preserved apiece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it beganto move with voluntary motion,” (Joseph vii). The extraordinary means forms thebasis for Frankenstein. Many people also believe that a nightmare that MaryShelley had could also be partly responsible for the creation of the novel.
At the time the novel was written, England was on the brink of leadingthe Industrial revolution in Europe. The experiments of Huntsman (cruciblesteel manufacture), Newcome (steam-powered pumps), and Cochrane (coal tarproduction) throughout the eighteenth century in England were decisive in theinitial transformation of England into an industrialized country (Burke 137, 173,195). The emerging age of technology appears to have found followers throughoutthe culture and to have become firmly reinforced by the time Frankenstein waswritten. Eric Rabkin (author), says that in England early in the eighteenthcentury, “there exist a populous discourse community that accepted the rhetoricof science” (Rabkin 39). This rhetoric has proof extending back to the EnglishRenaissance. Those sensitive to change and those prepared to embrace a rhetoricof change need not be scientists. While scientists address a discoursecommunity of scientists, novelists address a wider discourse community ofthe literate. If we can accept the earlier argument that science and poetryare not ontologically antagonistic, then we might well hope to find fictionaluses of the rhetoric of science . . . in texts scattered from Francis Bacon’stime to the present. These uses would change as the prevailing first principlesof the time evolved under the impact the advances brought by science and as theconsequent needs of artist also changed . . .
In the early seventeenth century, when the prevailing first principlesin the artist’s discourse community were theological, Bacon, as we have seen,used the authority of theology to validate the rhetoric of science. As scienceand technology and the persuasiveness of the rhetoric of science changed theworld and the way people viewed it, the competing authorities changed theirbalance until today the rhetoric of science is used to lend authority toreligion (Rankin 25, 37).
Tillyard confirms the proof of science and technology as firmlyestablished in Mary Shelley’s lifetime by quoting a book on Homer thatproclaimed England’s arts improving and its sciences advancing. Tillyard’spoint is that “the eighteenth-century myth of freedom in England included thedoctrine of progress” ( Tillyard 106). The doctrine of progress is connectedwith the emerging doctrine of industrialization and science. It was thisdoctrine, seemingly inside by English scholars and popular culture, althoughreflected by imagination it may have been, that it can be said to have providedscientific proof for Frankenstein. Rankin states that “Shelley had written apalpable fable and she knew that its full effect depended on authorizing somepossibility of belief” (Rankin 42). Science provided in the novel providedthat authority, creating a foundation story in what the English culture currentwith Mary Shelley would have taken as real world possibility. The rhetoric ofscience in fiction is not merely a modern overlay on storytelling, nor is itemployed, except fortuitously, to convey newly discovered information about theworld. Once upon a time fiction, which obviously is not true, took itsauthority form the Muse: at other times from the Bible. Neither of thesesources of authority would do for Shelley, but authority has always to be foundsomewhere if we are to distinguish the lies that tell truths form the just plainlies (Rankin 43).
Industrialization and the development of science were a sign that themind was no longer medieval as it was modern. This explains the use by Shelleyof The Modern Prometheus, and it does not eliminate the potential for literaryinvestigation. Fellman (178, 180) makes this point when he asserts thatFrankenstein was a literary anticipation of the twentieth century withalienation of human beings and technologies. He asserts that technology has ledto a culture of control of positive creative energy in favor of technology thatdeveloped a life of its own and that there is a parallel in Frankenstein withVictor’s alienation and withdrawal from his family and from the world at large.
Tillyard deals with the troubling element of moral uncertainty certain in aculture of scientism when he cites Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, were “thepoet asks by what means liberty, once lost, can be regained.” The answer is hope,forgiveness, defiance of absolute power, love, endurance, steadfastness. Inthis passage Shelley descends from his ecstatic vision of a redeemed universe tothe sober thought that a happy state of things on earth is liable to mutability(Tillyard 120).
There is uneasiness in the vision of the world could be improved byscientific or at least technical progress. The consequence of technologicalaction on this view is emotional and psychological on the part of human beingsconnected with it. In this regard (Brooks 592-4) suggests that in the novel,the monster’s comportment makes it impossible for him to access humaninteraction; only his ability to speak and communicate offers any opportunityfor interaction. Indeed, the monster’s ability to communicate offers suspenseand pathos, particularly when he demands that Victor create a mate for him: Youhave destroyed the work which you began: what is it that you intend? Do youdare to break your promise? I have endured toil and misery: I left Switzerlandwith you: I crept along the shores of the Rhine, among its willow islands, andover the heaths of England, and among the deserts of Scotland. I have enduredincalculable fatigue, and cold, and hunger; do you dare destroy my hopes?Begone! I do break my promise; never will I create another likeyourself, equal in deformity and wickedness (Shelley 167).
This goes to the issue of the scientist as villain, as Issac Asimov putsit. Asimov says that Victor Frankenstein is the prototype of the mad scientistwho invades on those things not meant for man to know, because , presumably theyare reserved for God alone.
What lies behind Victor Frankenstein’s scientific projects is obviouslyan attempt to gain power. Victor is inspired by the new scientists who acquirednew and almost unlimited power. Frankenstein has sought this unlimited power tothe extent of taking the place of God in reaction to his creation. In doing so,Frankenstein has not only disrupted nature, but seized the power of reproductionin order to become acknowledged. This ambition is very close to capitalism (toexploit natures resources for both commercial profit and political control).
This is a goal of what many of todays scientist are out to accomplish.
” Frankenstein, Asimov remarks “dared usurp what was considered the divinechoice of giving life and . . . paid dearly in consequence” (Asimov 66). Thesubtle irony of the book is of course that Frankenstein is not portrayed as avillainous character. he is actually, a tragic hero: he meant well” (Asimov66). The moral dilemma created by progress that outgrows its creator anddevelops as it were a life of its own is identified in Frankenstein. RobertSpector sees this as a concern of Shelley’s. Frankenstein (1818), which haslong enjoyed a reputation as a monster story, was a warning against man’sdomination by the machines he was creating. The evil is not inherent in themonster, but is a result of the attitude toward it. For Mary Shelley, imbuedwith the ideas of progress and the perfectibility of man, the danger lay in alack of proper feeling, a failing of charity and understanding. Her longpassages describing the education of the monster have often been criticized assentimental nonsense, but they were essential to her point of view. If what themonster learns about humanitarian principles comes only from book, it merelyincreased his wrath to discover their perversion in practice. . . . (Spector10)Shelley questioned the morals of the advancing technologies. She sawthe consequences that all the advances might cause. On this view, the novel isa cautionary tale about what is to come. Shelley’s tale of horror is aprofound insight of the consequences of morally insensitive scientific andtechnological research.
Works CitedAsimov, Isaac. “The Scientist as Villian.” Asimov on Science Fiction. NewYork: Granada, 1983. 65-68.
Brooks, Peter. “Godlike Science/ Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity inFrankenstein.” New Literary History (Spring 1978) 591-605Fellman, Gordon. “The Truths of Frankenstein: Technologism and Images ofDestruction.” Psychohistory Review 19 (1991): 177231.
Joseph, M.K. Introduction. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, by MaryShelley. Ed.M.K. Joseph. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969. i-xx.
Rabkin, Eric S. “The Rhetoric of Science in Fiction. ” Critical Encounters II:Writers and Themes in Science Fiction. Ed. Tom Staicar. New York:Ungar, 1982. 23-43Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Ed. M.K. Joseph.
Oxford: Oxford Up, 1969.
Spector, Robert Donald. Introduction. Seven Masterpieces of Gothic Horror.
New York: Bantam, 1963. 1-12.
Tillyard, E.M.W. Myth and the English Mind. New York: Collier Books, 1961.
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