Over the past few centuries, the intellectuals of society have made countless advances in science and the development of technology, which, to different degrees, have all benefitted mankind. These scientific discoveries are a result of man’s thirst for and dedication to acquiring knowledge, information, and power. The innate curiosity and desire for understanding in an individual can grow so immense that his or her moral and ethical boundaries erode, which results in disastrous consequences for all who are involved.
The novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is both a warning and a plea about the dangers of misusing academic prowess and the consequences that result because of the reckless pursuit of scientific progress. Victor Frankenstein is a scientist that, after becoming obsessed with discovering the secret to life, abandons his moral code and tries to play God by attempting to create life where there is none. The potential rewards of this endeavor cause Victor to forgo all prudence when considering the consequences of his actions, which allows the experiment to progress till completion.
The novel can be read as a criticism of the perusal of enlightenment science and philosophy. Victor’s failure of allowing his ambitions to blind him is highlighted by the mistakes of the monster. This novel is set up very interestingly by use of a frame story. Rather than only include the life of Victor, Shelley decided to start first with the story of another character. Sir Walton is the captain of a ship headed for a dangerous expedition of the North Pole, as we learn through letters he writes to his sister Margaret. Walton in many ways seems to pose as a foil for Victor.
They are both young men with ambitions to discover the unknown. Walton begins his journey very eagerly, talking about how enticements of being the first to explore the North Pole “are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death” (7). While some may take this ideology to the heroic, it is also clearly naive. Walton is clearly very caught up in the brightness of his dream since he dismisses the matter of life and death so quickly. However, if he does die, then it seems important to question whether the fleeting chance of success was worth it.
Once he comes into contact with Victor, Frankenstein can easily see bits of himself before the creation in Walton’s enthusiasm; “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent sting to you, as mine has been” (17). Walton is readily enticed by the tale of this strangely damaged man, despite the cautionary element. His desire for companionship draws him to Victor, since he is another intellectual with whom he might share his success. Victor too desires a friend, but he instead needs someone to share in his misery.
Ironically, the monster also had a saddened tale to share when he first meets Victor and explains to him his existence. Victor at the time was not willing to offer sympathy, so it is interesting that the same objective seems to be a factor in his decision to share his misfortune with Walton. Victor begins his story with a very comfortable and safe childhood that seems a stark contrast from the defeated man he has grown into. He tells Walton about his early education and his fascination with the mysteries of the natural world.
Even though the other aspects of his life at this point sound idyllic, there is a sure sense of doom in the way he speaks of his quest for knowledge. He refers to his interest in natural philosophy as “the fatal impulse that led to my ruin” (23). The word choice of impulse is interesting here, because it is used to describe a long existing condition rather than a split second decision. It brings to light how entangled in his world of discovery Victory must have been to have followed it for so long and still been unable to see the errors of his way.
His study of the outdated Agrippa despite his father’s disapproval is a metaphor for his actions in the case of creating the monster. Rather than share his ideas and value the opinions of people who might be wiser, Victor preferred his own impulses. He conducts his experiments in great secrecy whist at Igosdolt, becoming so obsessed with the creation that he has no time for interactions with natural humans. The symbol of light is introduced as flash of brilliance that accompanies his discovery of creation.
Light is also used by Walton because the word has a strong positive connotation. Both of them regard light as an illumination where before there had been only darkness. However, light can also blind if it is given off in excess. Victor can realize this mistake in retrospect, and is attempting to show Walton the negatives of a word and idea that clearly has a strong positive connotation. “Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (42). The realization of his own atrocities suggests a darker half of illumination.
That quote specifically touches at the heart of his impulsive character causing him to decide to quickly. While the creation might have been a brilliant idea in theory, it is much harder not to see the obvious faults when the product of his labors is so clearly deformed. The conversation Victor has with the monster after William’s death also brings a different angle to the mistake he has made. Now that the monster has learned to speak and feel in a very human like sense, his departures from man are all the more blatant and horrifying.
Equipped with the knowledge that he will never be accepted by humanity, the monster turns bitter. His aggression is likely symbolic of the frustration Victor must feel at shouldering all the blame for his creations sins. It is very clear that he was not inherently evil, but rather turned to his physical strength as a defense. Victor abandoned and rejected him, and all of the world he has meet with have been cruel and unaccepting. His knowledge of the situation troubles him deeply. “Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on a rock” (71).
Given what he knows about humanity, the creature has no ability to exist happily or peacefully. The situation is irreversible, like Frankenstein giving the creature life. It is interesting to note that the creature learned most of his communication skills through reading books. When Victor talked about his childhood, it seemed books were a great source of knowledge for him as well. Shelley seems to be saying something about secondary sources, and that knowledge comes not from pursuing your own ambitions wildly but rather taking the time to learn from the experience of others.
Henry takes an interest in natural philosophy as he and Victor travel. Even though this subject has obviously brought Victor a great deal of misery, Henry appears happy and fulfilled. Since he dies before he can accomplish any sort of greatness, the reader does not know if he was intended for ruin as well. There is an alternate reading that maybe Henry could have taken a better approach to gaining knowledge. Rather than rush in and blindly overwhelm himself, Henry could have eased more gradually into the unknown.
Victor’s regret from his hard learned lesson has frozen him to inaction. He debates the creatures request for a companion considerably, driving himself insane with indecision. It is ironic how he was once so eager to create, but now he is paralyzed weighing the consequences. He has realized that unlike a true master, his knowledge is not controlled and therefore should not be utilized. The book ends with a switch in narration back to Walton, sending it full circle from the beginning. Walton believes Victor’s story and sees him as a brilliant man marred by one fatal mistake.
The boat at this point had been stuck in ice for a few days now. The crew begs Walton to return to England, but Victor surprisingly counters this idea. Despite his own failing, he maintains that the glory of their quest should outweigh the cost of continuing. This can be interpreted as just a dying man trying to find a dream from the days of his youth. Or maybe, Victor has truly thought about the consequences fully of the crew’s situation. Walton does decide to turn back, showing the he likely took Victor’s story to heart.
Frankenstein shows cases of how a ruthless pursuit of knowledge can lead to devastation. Victor idealizes a dream for greatness, and he allows this to blind him from seeing the cost of actions until it is too late. He sees this quality of himself in Walton, and tells him the story as a cautionary tale. Light is a symbol heavily used in relating to the discovery of the unknown. Too much light before one is ready to take it in fully is dangerous. With knowledge comes great responsibility, and should not be sought haphazardly.