Frankenstein: A Cautionary Tal Essay, Research Paper
Frankenstein as a Cautionary Tale of Science
The human race has long been preoccupied with the quest for knowledge. Children spend between twelve and fifteen years in schools before they are considered able to contribute to society and lead adult lives. We are convinced of the notion that a higher level of knowledge will lead to a happier life and a better world. We trust that technology and science will improve our standards of living (will make tasks easier) and lead us to salvation. Many people put as much or more faith in the scientific method as in God. In Mary Shelley s Frankenstein , Victor s ordeal can be read as a tale of warning. His intentions are good and his ability and knowledge are at the genius level. Victor is the ideal student and fledgling scientist, his faith in science, however, and his lack of moral considerations and critical foresight, land him in the path of a fatally destructive force. Shelley deals with notions regarding the danger of knowledge, the need for moral and ethical considerations, the importance of objectivity and of being responsible and accountable for one s actions. Victor is a wonderful illustration of how a scientist should not be.
There are several allusions to the sin of knowledge in Shelley s text. Of course the story of Eve and the apple, and the fall from grace conjure thoughts that support this concept but it goes deeper. In Frankenstein , the pursuit of knowledge inevitably leads to misery and disappointment. The acquisition of knowledge gives Victor the means to harm his loved ones as well as himself. The creature s attainment of knowledge has opened his eyes to the cruelty of his position in the world and has therefore caused him suffering. I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted on me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat. Of what strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock. 1 The creature knows that had he remained ignorant, he would have remained happy. He is aware that there is no going back. Once you know something, it cannot willingly be forgotten.
Knowledge affects Frankenstein in a more complex way. His acquired knowledge and skills gives him a new power. He foolishly bends the laws of nature and, like a blind man firing a gun, he unleashes the fruit of his knowledge on the unsuspecting world. Although he does eventually come to see the potential destructive force of his knowledge, he never sees it as a threat in itself. Victor never contends that his life would have been in a better state had he not gone to university. His own suffering and the suffering of his loved ones is made possible due to his knowledge.
It should also be noted that the innocent characters are all, for the most part, ignorant as well. Clerval has less education that Frankenstein. Elizabeth and Justine are both totally uneducated, and William is but a mere child. Shelley seems to be supporting the cliched adage Ignorance is bliss .
Perhaps due to his youth or lack of philosophical training, Frankenstein overlooks some important considerations when approaching his task of creation. When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. 2 It seems that moral implications were not included in these ponderings. This begs the question; Just because one has the ability to do something, does that mean it should be done? Some scientists of today are able to clone human beings. The idea has been raised that headless, unconscious bodies could be engineered to provide replacement parts should someone lose a leg or a finger. There is, of course, much debate concerning whether or not these procedures would be ethical.
From a Biblical standpoint, Frankenstein s actions are clearly wrong. Some believe that man was created in God s image. If man, an inferior being, is a second generation copy of God, then a copy of man would be even less refined and further from perfection. The creature relates himself to Adam and sees the shortcomings of his creator. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. 3 Victor defiantly pushes the envelope and creates life but his playing God ends at its birth.
Frankenstein also lacks objectivity. At a young age, Victor loses his mother. Her death is the most probable cause for his overwhelming desire to bring dead beings back to life. All that he can see is how his discoveries in this new field of science will help mankind. He is driven by personal motives. Herein lies another lesson regarding how not to approach science. One can quickly become obsessed with an ideal and lose all objectivity when being influenced by emotional stimulus. What was Victor planning on doing with his creation? That wasn t one of his considerations. Even if the creature had been beautiful, it would have still been in Victor s charge and based on Victor s character, it would still have been neglected. It seems every teenage boy is aware how easy it is to create life, and how difficult it is to sustain life when you are its sole provider. Of course there are still teenage boys who allow their actions to be lead by their emotional desires. Victor Frankenstein neglects to realize that this monster could be an awesome burden on society.
In the sections of the book where Frankenstein converses with Walton on the ship, it is clear that he has undergone some changes, he has matured. Victor has finally come to realize his faults and is taking responsibility for his actions. It seems that he has learned from his experiences. He sees that Walton has a strong dedication to his goal and, like himself, is in a position to put many people at risk (namely, his crew). Identifying with Walton, Victor sees an opportunity to impart the wisdom he has gained. He warns of the misery that can be caused in the pursuit of knowledge. You may easily perceive, Captain Walton, that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined, once, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. 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 to sting you, as mine has been. 4 There is an important lesson imparted here. When a mistake has been made, the scientist has a responsibility to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. In order to do this, Victor tells the story of his misfortunes in the hopes that a general lesson may be learned. He also, however, conceals, or in effect, destroys his research so that no one else might follow the same miserable path.
Another theme that is woven throughout the text deals with the evolution of science. In at least two instances, the works of Albertus Magnus, Agrippa, and Paracelsus are referred to as garbage and a waste of time. When Victor s father finds him reading Agrippa, he dismisses it as trash . One of Victor s professors, M. Krempe, also tells him that every minute he has wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. 5 It seems clear that Victor owes his success in creating life from death to his study of the old masters as well as his new professors. The old scientists always sought for the elixir of life. Krempe tells Victor that the elixir of life is a chimera , and Frankenstein seems to latch on to that idea.6 According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, the definition of chimera is [an] organism formed by grafting etc. from tissues of different genetic origin . This describes Frankenstein s creature quite well. It could very well be that the professor was speaking metaphorically on the elixir of life but Victor took it quite literally.
There seems to be no communication between the old science and the new, the old is thoroughly disregarded and the current ideas are held as gospel. People today recognize that new methods are always on the horizon and that the mistakes or successes of the past are worth notice. Victor evens mentions that if his father had explained to him that the science he was studying was exploded , he might have never taken on the task that led to his ruin.7 As for the elixir of life being a chimera, well, times have changed.
The story of Victor Frankenstein has existed since its inception in one distilled manner or another but on close examination it is clear that Shelley has more to offer than demons and murder. Frankenstein is a warning. Poor Victor stands as an example – everyone can learn something from his mistakes.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. The Longman Anthology. Vol. 2A. Eds. Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. New York: Longman, 1999.
Sykes, J.B., ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1983.