A Science of Limitation
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a novel laden with comparisons and allusions to religion, folklore, and philosophy. Frankenstein’s creation of a monster showcases a man doing what only deities had done before: giving life to something dead. This obviously raises questions about morality, responsibility, and many other philosophical issues. Because the creation of life is generally considered a deific act, we cannot help but wonder what the novel says about humans creating other life. Through writings by Dion, John Locke, John Wesley, and others, we can ascertain the prevalent philosophies of the time. These would have in turn influenced the novel. However, the novel does more than simply regurgitate the perspectives offered by contemporaries. Rather, it adopts them into the plotline of the creator and created, in a synthesis of ideas which presents its own assertions about creation. Exploring the context around the novel leads us to wonder why the monster appears to possess inherently evil traits, just like mankind in Christianity, but also possesses innocence and curiosity sometimes, such as during his observation of a family living in the woods. The answer is ultimately a case for the limitations of science carried out by mankind. Because Frankenstein focuses so much on the dynamics of creation stories and the nature of human life at its beginnings in people, it is most probable that Victor Frankenstein himself plays God in his work. Similar to the Christian traditions of the time, Frankenstein as God creates a being after the image of himself. However, unlike the Christian creation story, the creator himself is a flawed being, thereby producing a repulsive creation. We see, at the moment the monster comes to life, that the scientist looks upon him with disgust, describing him as “shriveled”—a “catastrophe” (Shelley 36). This is a stark parallel to the Christian God’s assessment of His created people: “and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31 ESV).
Another major influence on Frankenstein was likely the work of John Locke, who famously advocated for the tabula rasa, or blank slate. Essentially, this view of psychology and human nature stated that people directly after birth are blank slates, without any innate behavioral characteristics. Everything about a person’s behavior comes from their experiences and interactions with their environment. This applies to moral principles, as well, as John Locke states in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. “No innate practical principles…they lie not open as natural characters engraven on the mind…” (Locke 51). Frankenstein interacts with this concept as well, as we see through the monster’s curiosity about his world, his questions for his creator, and his attempts to learn what is right and wrong throughout the plot.
Because Frankenstein bears the influences of Christianity’s creator-nature attribute inheritance alongside John Locke’s tabula rasa theory, the work is some sort of evaluation of the two, and commentary on the real workings of human nature from a post-creation standpoint. Throughout Frankenstein, we see the monster not as a complete villain, but a curious being invested in learning about the people around him and trying, at times, to be a force for good in the world of the humans (Shelley 77). At the same time, however, we see the monster endowed with inherently repulsive traits, such as his unnatural lips, sunken, milky eyes, and a behavior so easily turned to malevolence and revenge (Shelley 140). It follows therefore that the novel asserts that sentient created beings inherit an aspect of absolute good or evil from their creators, but circumstances and environment have the power to shape that product over time.
From this standpoint, the novel can go on to make further assertions about the nature of humanity through the nature of the monster and its relationship to its creator. The poet Dion, a contemporary of Shelley, published a poem on “The Progress of Life” in 1812. Firstly, this poem solidifies the parallel between the scientist and God, stating that “…science, gift of Heav’n, which lifts man up, and purifies his nature, makes him almost a God, and teaches him to wing his thoughts along the upmost verge of vast creation…” (Dion). Because of this, the monster’s early existence represents the initial state of man in the universe.
Another contemporary of Shelley’s, one of the most prominent figures in the intellectual community at the time, was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. In A Review of Wesley’s Notions Respecting the Primeval State of Man and the Universe, Joseph Barker summarizes Wesley’s stance that “the world in its primeval state, before the first transgression…was good. The whole surface of it was beautiful to a high degree” (Barker 2). Enamored with his monster during the creation process, Frankenstein too believed it to be perfect, beautifully proportioned, and a form of a man, perfected. When we consider this in light of the two creators and their original states as stated by the church at that time, we can see the dialogue between the novel and the greater picture of creation. According to the nineteenth-century church, the God of the Bible defines absolute perfection, while his post-transgression people have been defiled by sin, without any merit aside from the grace of Christ. In his state of total depravity then, Frankenstein can only create a creature equally depraved or more so than himself.
Seemingly, John Locke’s tabula rasa and the philosophy of the church cannot combine harmoniously with each other. If Shelley’s work were purely from Locke’s standpoint, the monster would be at most visually repulsive, and without any inclination to do anything violent or malevolent. On the other hand, from the church’s perspective, the monster should have awoken with an instant desire for self-gratification, with nothing but evil intents. The monster would not have lived beside the family for a spell, chopping wood and learning to read. The synthesis of these two points of view in Shelley’s novel seeks to establish an accurate view of creation.
Establishing a view of creation is rather pointless without a more relevant application to real-world philosophy, however. What does the monster’s initial creation ultimately say about our world? Let us return to Dion’s poem about life. His assertion that science almost makes man a God draws a comparison between science and God. As the novel establishes a perspective of God and creation, it also compares science to creation. Frankenstein makes the bigger assertion through this parallel, stating that science is limited by human nature. Science, a type of creation—perhaps that of knowledge—can only become as perfect as the people who practice it. Just like the monster, scientific findings can be incredible but will always be flawed, like the researchers who find them. Evaluating Frankenstein in relation to the writings and thoughts contemporary to its author reveals a striking commentary on the limitations of science as carried out by humans. Through a masterful use of parallels and comparisons, the novel asserts that while science can accomplish monumental tasks, the findings are only as perfect as the men who find them—and the men, while almost gods in their studies—are restrained by their depravity according to Christian beliefs. On a less absolute standpoint however, scientists remain free to develop their art and moral values according to their environments, as represented through John Locke’s influence. While Frankenstein is a fantastic novel for pleasure reading, it is also addresses the heavy parts of life. The monster’s creation serves as a stark warning to scientists who would try to play God.
Barker, Joseph. A Review of Wesley’s Notions Respecting the Primeval State of Man and the Universe. 1800. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/60202937.
Dion. “The Progress of Life.” The Belfast Monthly Magazine, vol. 9, no. 49, 1812, pp. 130–131. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30074159.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. 1689. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books/about/An_Essay_Concerning_Human_Understanding.html?id=J0sdAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q=blank%20slate&f=false.
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