Branches of the Tree of Knowledge
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley warns that with the advent of science, natural philosophical questioning is not only futile, but dangerous. In attempting to discover the mysteries of life, Frankenstein assumes that he can act as God. He disrupts the natural order, and chaos ensues.
Mary Shelley goes to great lengths to emphasize the beauty and order of life when man engages in ìnaturalî pursuits. She idealizes Frankenstein’s home life: ìI feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mindî (38). His family is orderly and wonderful. Clerval’s ìpresence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollectionÖI felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joyî (58). Shelley also stresses that man should feel at one with nature, not at odds with it: ìWhen happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensationsî (68).
Certain occupations allow man to be at one with nature and his fellow creatures. Shelley feels that science should be useful and beneficial to mankind. Clerval, a clearly pure and benevolent character, studies languages. He loves poetry. These disciplines allow man to help others and glorify nature without questioning it. In childhood, Frankenstein’s studies contained ìbright visions of usefulnessî (38): ìI betook myself to the mathematics, and the branches of study appertaining to that science, as being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of considerationî (41).
But Frankenstein’s interests soon turned away from mathematics; he speaks of his change of mind as if an evil spirit had taken control of his brain. He begins to thirst after higher knowledge, hoping to discover the deepest mysteries of nature: ìI had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repinedî (39). Frankenstein delves into these studies, hoping to ìunfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creationî (47). ìLife and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark worldî (52) Frankenstein succeeds in discovering the secrets of life and death, and becomes able to bestow ìanimation upon lifeless matterî (51). While Frankenstein is involved in this pursuit, Shelley portrays his life as grotesque and unnatural in comparison to his childhoodóhe abandons everything that clearly made his life natural and good: ìThe dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupationî (53). Frankenstein cuts off contact with his family, and no longer appreciates the glory of nature. He confines himself to a roomóhis occupation is unnatural: ìWho shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the graveÖand disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frameî (53). With these descriptions, Shelley tells the reader that Frankenstein treads on forbidden groundóhe does not discover secrets, but ìdisturbsî them.
When Frankenstein’s completes his creation, he finally realizes the horror of what he has done. He sees immediately that his aspiration to make ìa new species [that] would bless me as its creator and sourceî was far from realized. Instead, ìthe beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled [his] heartî (56). His actions, performed in isolation, did nothing to better human kind, being so far removed from human nature. He realizes the full horror of what he has done in his dream, which foreshadows the chaos and destruction that is to come. He sees how horrid it is to meddle in superhuman affairs and attempt to alter natural processes. In his dream, he sees his beloved Elizabeth, and kisses her. But to his horror, she turns into his dead mother, ìa shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of flannelî (57). With this image, Shelley illustrates the evil of man trying to venture into the domain of God. Frankenstein succeeds in creating life, but this creation results in nothing but death and destruction. He profanes his mother’s death, and turns a vibrant life into decaying nothingness. His attempts to change life’s natural boundaries can only lead to chaos. As a mortal, he cannot do what God does. He can create life, but he cannot create order. Man stepping out of his natural place can only cause disorder.
Shelley further portrays Frankenstein as a perverted God through references to Adam and Eve. The monster laments having been created by such an imperfect God. He says, ìHow dare you sport thus with lifeÖ I ought to be thy Adamî (97). Frankenstein, however, is no God. The monster eventually realizes this, and reproaches Frankenstein:
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. 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 a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone (126).
Frankenstein is no better than his monster, being ruled by the same human passions. He is not a superior being, and cannot support creation of a new species. The humility that Frankenstein should have before his own creator is demonstrated through Shelley’s powerful descriptions of nature. Frankenstein feels small against the ìdashing of the waterfalls around, [which] spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotenceî (91). He can never really penetrate these secretsóìthe pine woods, and ragged bare ravine, the eagle, soaring amidst the cloudsóthey all gathered round me and bade me be at peaceî (93). He also notices the perfection with which his creator formed the humans, and marvels at Clerval’s qualities, ìHas his mind, so replete with ideasÖwhose existence depended on the life of its creatoróhas this mind perishedÖNo, it is not thus; your form so divinely wroughtÖhas decayed, but your spirit still visits and consoles your unhappy friend.î With this statement, Frankenstein realizes that life and death are not really the ìideal boundaries.î There is so much more to life and death than humans can possibly conceive. Biology is not necessarily the answer to the secrets of life and death.
Thus, humans should live within their bounds, and not struggle with forces that are beyond their grasp. Frankenstein regrets his foray into natural philosophy. He wishes for ìthe light-hearted gaiety of boyhoodî (92), when man did not seek to know these secrets. He laments:
Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire we might be nearly free (94).
Shelley equates man’s grappling with higher questions with Adam eating from the tree of knowledge. Frankenstein wanted to stop the destruction, ìbut the apple was already eatenî (183). But man’s knowledge is never as perfect as God’s knowledge. His presumption to know the secrets of life made him ìlike the archangel who aspired to omnipotence…chained in an eternal hellî (204). Frankenstein finally realizes this. He never should have presumed to create life, because the creation of life is more than the physical actóthe order and harmony of the world can only be produced by a perfect creature. Frankenstein cries: ìManÖhow ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you sayî (194)!
Frankenstein has finally learned his lesson. Or has he? After his excruciating pains and hardship, Frankenstein’s dying words are: ìI have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeedî (210). Unless Frankenstein is referring to beneficial, pragmatic scientific knowledge, then he has not yet acknowledged that man cannot know the secrets of nature. Shelley means his final words to be a warning to the reader. Man’s growing ambition and intellect will render him desperate to discover the deepest mysteries of lifeóit is a difficult task to halt this ambition. But this ambition is greater than man’s intellect. He can never know all, though he aspires to heaven. Until he realizes his limitations, the spread of science can only lead to chaos and destruction.
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