Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was one of the most elegant and horrifying pieces of literature written in its time, and is still widely considered a Gothic horror classic. The book follows Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a reclusive mad scientist, who seeks to create new life by sewing together the limbs and remains of several other dead bodies and reanimate them. The book and its monster have been compared to many different things in a variety of subtexts, but one of the clearest readings of the book indicates that the monster represents the dangers of knowledge, especially as the book posits that the pursuit of said knowledge can lead us to give up our humanity and ability to love. The monster’s own tragic existence comes about as the result of mankind abusing its gifts, as well as accomplishing things it is not ready to be responsible for – namely, the raising of the dead and the creation of artificial life. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in depicting the differences between what is right and what is scientifically possible, demonstrates that scientific ability that is not tempered by morality or ethics can become extremely dangerous.
One of the potential origins for the writing of Frankenstein came from Shelley’s own hazardous experiences with childbearing. In February 1815, she gave birth to a baby girl – however, twelve days later, the girl passed away prematurely. Shelley was grief-stricken, and later dreams about her child in March of that year. Writing in her journal, Shelley says that she had a “Dream that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived” (NLM, 2005). Though she had a baby boy who successfully lived not long after, it is possible this desire – this pull to reanimate the dead so that they may once more be among the living – that drove Shelley to write Frankenstein.
There are a number of parent-child tensions in Frankenstein; the allegory between Victor Frankenstein and the monster being his ‘son’ are quite clear, as the man is figuratively borne of his invention. In essence, the book is about the inadequate way in which a parent can prepare their children for society, instead leaving them to “retreat into themselves” and forego civilization (Claridge, 1985). The Shelley dream of making her “little baby” come to life again is personified here; though it is not really said how the monster is made to be alive, one wonders if it would have been by rubbing it “before the fire” as Shelley described in her dream. This is an interesting perspective, due to the monster’s fear of fire, particularly in the 1931 film. In this way, Shelley is Victor – making her dream come true by making the dead come to life, creating an offspring regardless of its physical origin.
Shelley’s writing and characterization of Victor implies that the pursuit of knowledge is something that was instilled in Victor from a very young age, restricting his ability to have romantic feelings and behave as a sexual creature. The lack of affection that Victor receives as a child is extended, as a consequence, to the monster; neither know how to love properly (Williams, 2003). While, on the surface, his parents were loving and affectionate, the writing implies that Victor is unhappy about that. By being his parents’ “plaything and idol,” they do not allow him to be an individual or a part of the family (Shelley, p. 33). Victor’s childhood recollections are sarcastic and ill-considered; there is no way that “every hour of [his] infant life [he] received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control” (p. 34). This is made particularly true when it is revealed that he does not have those qualities (Claridge, 1985). Later, when Elizabeth is added to the family, Frankenstein considers her an object of infatuation, which borders on obsession. This prefaces the obsession that he will have with the monster, which acts as representative of the pursuit of knowledge replacing romance (Nicolson, 2010).
After the creature disappears, Victor recovers from his illness and goes to search for him. Finding his brother William murdered, he knows it was by the creature; this makes him feel primarily responsible. “I was the true murderer” (p. 89). Eventually, Victor owns up to all of the death that the creature wrought before it was put down, though not without an ounce of apology: “I abhorred the face of manoh, not abhorred! I felt attracted even to the most repulsive among them” (pp. 184-185). Though he attempts to justify his own motivations by saying he truly respected life in the end, he knows that ultimately he was responsible, and that he did try to play God with the creation of life.
The monster is much like Victor as well: trying to overcome the shadow of his parentage and owning his life. As Victor tried to destroy his parents reputation by succeeding them and surpassing them in the realm of science, so too did the monster want to take his revenge on his father for creating and rejecting him. At one point, he does recognize that he did not provide for the creature as much as he should have – “I ought to have made him happy before I complained of his wickedness” (p. 102). These types of parental regrets are the kinds likely echoed by Shelley, who may have lamented whatever slights or ill thoughts she considered about her child before it died twelve days after birth. Her own guilt is echoed in the hatred that the creature feels for Victor; she is afraid that, even if the child were to have actually come back to life, it would have rejected and hated her. “You, my own creator, detest and spurn me” (p. 99). The creature states that his negligence makes him “the author at once of my existence and its unspeakable torments” (p. 220).
Through Shelley’s writing of the monster, some of the more tender aspects of this anxiety regarding her dead daughter is explored. The monster learns much about life and the world, and ruminates on it – man is “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base” (p. 119). These are things that the child itself could have learned, and Shelley could have taught her; however, since she is separated from the child, she must learn it on her own, as the monster does.
The advantages of literature as a vehicle for exploring ideas versus rhetoric and language are many; for one, literature has the ability to provide hypothetical scenarios in which these possibilities occur. The imagination that is behind the voicing of these ethical concerns can be exercised in a vivid and detailed way, showing the audience exactly what implications the question has. With rhetorical argument and debate, only the mechanics of the issue can be conveyed; literature permits a much more detailed, erudite and vivid recreation of the possibilities inherent in the issue itself. In the case of Frankenstein, the question of “what happens when scientific inquiry is not tempered by moral wisdom?” is answered in the form of the monster. The monster, being created without a context and immediately abandoned by his master, becomes a monstrosity that is incapable of understanding what it is, and how to interact within society.
The use of Early Romantic devices and concepts in Frankenstein provides a unique advantage to the aforementioned debate between scientific inquiry and moral wisdom, as it allows the monster (and therefore, the product of the debate) to be humanized and given its own agency. According to Edmund Burke, the Sublime is “whatever is in a sort terrible is productive of the strongest emotions which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke 51). Shelley understood that the human mind can experience fear and dread very quickly, leading to a fight or flight reflex. This astonishment also allows people to see the divine; the creature is very much both ugly and divine in this way. The creature is sublime in his terrifying implications, as well as his astonishing possibility, and this particular Early Romantic attribute is something very well covered in Frankenstein. The novel, as previously alluded, also touches on aspects of responsible science, noting that the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, and his subsequent mishandling by Frankenstein himself, is a case study of the need to better understand what happens when science advances further than our ability to use it wisely.
Mary Shelley’s writing of the novel today would have had the potential to give the creature a “liberal arts” education, calling from all past and contemporary literature to arm the creature with a possibly greater sense of understanding of the world around him. One concept that might benefit the monster (through assignment of literature) is Absolute truth. This is the notion that things are definitely something, that one can be 100% certain of the validity of an idea, statement or object. “Absolutely knowing is the truth of every mode of consciousness becauseit is only in absolute knowing that the separation of the object from the certainty of itself is completely eliminated: truth is now equated with certainty and certainty with truth” (Hegel, p. 51). When someone accepts something as an absolute truth, objectivity can be claimed; there is no wiggle room for doubt or duality. For example, the idea that “I am human” is thought in many philosophies to be an absolute truth. Being is something that humans can do, and this leads to the eventual Knowing; “I think, therefore I am.”
In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the notion of absolute truth is deeply ingrained in the debate between humans and androids – whether or not there is truly a difference between them. The Voight-Kampff test demonstrates that Dick’s interpretation of the meaning of life is the presence of empathy, and this is what makes someone ‘human.’ The characters struggle with this throughout the book – Deckard uses the V-K test on Rachael, but she is at first assumed, when it fails, to be a human who simply does not have empathy. The ‘electric sheep’ that Deckard gets to replace his real sheep that died is resented by him, because he does not think that it loves him back. This very same attitude is the thing that allows him to hunt down androids just as easily; he does not view them as beings that deserve to live, since the test says that they have no empathy. We soon learn that this may not strictly be true, however, due to his experiences with Rachael. Deckard’s own wrestling with these issues is an important exploration of absolute truth in Electric Sheep; eventually, he comes to suspect that he and the androids are not so different after all. If the creature were to read this book, he might be slightly more aware of who he is (an artificial being), and how humans would treat him; at the same time, he would understand the truth of his nature, and that it is okay that he is different.
The second book in the creature’s education would be Plato’s Republic. In Book II of Plato’s Republic, he discusses the principles of education, and how it plays into the body and soul of a person. The quality of an education is absolutely important, as getting the wrong kind of education will poison your mind with erroneous ideas. Specialization is an important aspect of education – finding an individual’s best strengths and speaking most fervently to them, allowing that person to serve the polis the best way he can. Whether it is through food or medicine, or craftsmanship, the producing class is the basic specialization to fill, because it fills the most pressing needs of the people. According to Socrates, “The result, then, is that more plentiful and better-quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the right time, and is released from having to do any of the others.” A specialist can do one thing very well, and rely on the others to provide the rest of the things that the people need due to their specializations. This book in particular would provide Frankenstein’s monster with the idea that he could be a part of a society and fit in – that he is capable of assimilating and communicating well with the people around him.
The third book in the creature’s liberal arts education would be The Island of Dr. Moreau, yet another book that covers mad scientists creating creatures without the benefit of moral wisdom. The book itself touches on many unique and prescient themes, not the least of which is the line between science and humanity. Is it possible to lose what makes us human while we pursue the possibilities of technology and science? In this novel, the struggle between humanity and science is portrayed by the outlooks and events that surround the characters of Dr. Moreau, Montgomery, and Prendick, their character arcs each encompassing one end of that spectrum.
The creature would be able to understand more fully the depths to which his creator could plumb. Dr. Moreau wishes to create his own little heaven, with his own army of creatures to do his bidding. Not feeling or caring for them in any way, he resorts to physical violence often to punish them and to keep them from following their animal instincts. “Some want to follow things that move, to watch and slink and wait and spring, to kill and bite, bite deep and rich, sucking the blood It is bad” (Wells, p. 44). In this way, Moreau is not part of the human community any longer; he is king of the beasts. His obsession with scientific research implies an abandonment of humanity and an embrace of all things animal and biology-related. Moreau relishes the power that he has over others: “Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say: this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own” (Wells, p 59). By reading this book in particular, the creature would also become aware of humanity’s tendency to create things it does not understand, and it would learn that it is not alone.
The benefits of a liberal arts education on the monster would be immense. The monster can somewhat speak, operating in surprisingly complex language, but is often clumsy and bumbling as he walks, still possessing the innocence of a child. He is also learning as a child, as well; he is surprised and angered at sunlight, and he does not have the established intelligence that the Frankenstein’s monster of the novel possesses.
However, despite this infantilization of Frankenstein, the creature benefits from having the main perspective throughout the book. While there is still some focus on Victor, the story is told through the monster’s eyes. The novel’s monster was merely kind, sweet and innocent, incapable of doing wrong simply because he does not know its own strength. He lashes out and recoils like a wounded animal at times, and has a loose grasp of understanding the world. When he befriends the young Maria, he thinks that Maria can float in the water – he throws her into the lake, drowning her as a result. This fundamental misunderstanding of the ways of the world could have been avoided if Victor was around to parent and educating him instead of treating him like a science experiment. This is an example of the kind of education and wisdom that Frankenstein (both creator and monster) could have benefited from.
In conclusion, the issue of scientific inquiry as it relates to moral wisdom is exemplified in Frankenstein uniquely, due to its status as a piece of literature that can extrapolate a point and use subtext to convey it effectively to a potentially unaware audience. The dangers of knowledge, as presented in Frankenstein, are manifest in the creation of a creature that is immediately shunned and displaced from society, as well as permits Victor Frankenstein as a character to become a cold, socially awkward and amoral person, who cannot handle the consequences of actions taken as a result of his scientific know-how. As a result, this leaves both him and the monster broken people, and illustrates the Gothic horror of science going awry, as well as a dangerous emphasis of the human spirit on the pursuit of scientific knowledge. This knowledge could be repaired through the education of Frankenstein’s monster in a liberal arts education, permitting him to gain a better understanding of the world around him.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Harper and Brothers, 1856. Print.
Claridge, Laura P. “Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein: The Search for Communion.” Studies in the Novel vol. 17, no. 1. Spring 1985. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Print.
Williams, Anne. “‘Mummy, possest’: Sadism and Sensibility in Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Romantic Circles Praxis Series/Frankenstein’s Dream, Feb. 2003.