Frankenstein By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly: The Fragility Of Human Nature
Science fiction is a literary genre which not only prepares the individual for technological advancements to society, but that teaches the individual the implications of human action. As a relatively early genre, it can often be compared to fantasy. However, science fiction narrates societies that have been disrupted and advanced from scientific discoveries, new technology and radical social systems. Though the genre is fictional, based on ideas of what could happen, much of the content has merit in terms of present day scientific research. In addition, these ideas provide a commentary on human nature and social existence. Thus, the genre shows the reader how possible the utopian and dystopian worlds of science fiction truly are.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s Frankenstein is regarded as one of the first novels of science fiction. Though it explores the links between science and philosophy and the possibility of scientific advancement with concepts such as Galvinism, it more acutely provides a social criticism on human nature and interaction. This essay will explore the ways in which Frankenstein highlights the fragility of human nature, specifically in terms of the quest for knowledge, in a manner that works to inform the reader of the dangers within himself and those around him.
To begin, one can assess the placement of the gothic novel Frankenstein, in order to gain context on it’s otherness in terms of traditional literature. The novel takes place during the Enlightenment era. This time period was an intellectually driven movement that praised freedom, democracy and reason as the determining characteristics of society. The concept of freedom bled into the desire of expanding human knowledge, which explains the Scientific revolution (birthed at the same time). At the time that Frankenstein was written, Europe had already undergone massive changes in terms of society and nature, which likely fuelled Shelley’s writing. The major tension beneath her writing was her fear that the Industrial Revolution would place science above humanity. Thus, the novel is undoubtedly a criticism on the danger of losing touch with human nature. This is seen primarily through Victor and the tragedy he encounters within himself after testing the boundaries between science and the creation of life. However, it is also paralleled through the Creature and his longing to belong and experience human emotion.
Firstly, Victor recognizes that his discovery has unlocked knowledge that he is not equipped to possess. He is concerned yet enthralled by the power he has acquired through his commitment to science, “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”. This quote is relevant to the text as a whole, and to Victor’s character because it displays his willingness to ignore his conscience and pursue his knowledge despite the danger he recognizes may ensue. This shows that greediness is intertwined with knowledge. Though there is a clear boundary between the two, human nature can be too curious and self consumed to err on the side of caution and responsibility.
Secondly, Victor’s tireless obsession with bringing the Creature to life is actually at odds with the principal of science, which is the importance of details records of work, “But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result”. He is so overcome by the possibility of power and discovery that he dismisses the indispensable aspect of scientific research which is that of documentation. However, this is contested later in the novel when the Creature finds a written record of the event. Therefore, it seems that this quote is for dramatic emphasis. It lays the foundations for Victors’s obsession with fame and creation over science as a practice.
Thirdly, the idea of losing touch from human nature is furthered in this same chapter when Victor encounters the Creature for the very first time since it’s inception. After he sees the grotesque creation that he has worked tirelessly on for two year is in fact alive, his passion for the project disappears, “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”. This is an important passage in the novel because it definitively outlines Victor’s realization and regret for what he has done. Moreover, it parallels human nature by exposing one’s selfish tendencies. While consumed by the illusion of power and discovery, Victor disregards the consequences that should follow tampering with existence.
The theme of guilt and consequence follow him throughout the novel and play a prominent role in Shelley’s overarching message which relates to the danger of valuing science and revolution over human emotion. Therefore, in the very beginning of the novel, the reader is aware of Victor’s fragility and short comings. Though he believes his work is progressive for science and technology, he recognizes the danger that will likely follow it. Because of this, he dismisses the work that was put into it for two years and is blinded by the result: a grotesque creature that pushes the boundaries of morality. Shelley has thus implicated the danger of knowledge with Victor at the outset of the novel, but she extends it to the Creature as well.
The creature is a multidimensional character with inner conflicts that represent human nature — even though he is a fabrication of chemistry and technology. He potentially has good intentions and romantic interests, but he faces rejection and is neglected due to his appearance from Victor and the outside world. Furthermore, he is abandoned by his Creator and left to fend for himself. As he comes across the DeLacey family, he is intrigued by human emotion and interaction — something he had no previous knowledge of. It is this knowledge that leads to fascination and eventually trouble. The origin of the Creature’s sympathy comes from first observing the cottagers, “I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure…and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions”. In this instant, the Creature, uneducated on the ways and emotions of mankind, is overcome by the emotional encounter between father and daughter. Once he has knowledge of this kind of relationship and human interaction, he longs for it as well. He not only learns from the behaviours of the DeLacey family, but also from their lessons. He becomes fascinated by light and books, and through this knowledge he believes that he will be able to rationalize with the humans in order to create a relationship with them. Unfortunately for the Creature, due to his looks and unnatural composition, he can never find belonging with the humans. When he tries, “the children shrieked and one of the women fainted”. It is because of his knowledge of human interaction and emotion that he seeks revenge on Victor. Victor brought him into a world in which he could never be a part of — which the Creature understands after seeing his reflection. If Victor had kept the Creature as a product of science, shielding him from the knowledge of humanity, he would not feel lonely and isolated. This is the complex issue at stake with Victor and the Creature, and it brings about the debate on who the true monster in the novel is. Robert Heinlein’s belief that science fiction possesses an implicit didactic function to “prepare our youngsters to be mature citizens of the galaxy” is supported through analysis of Frankenstein.
The novel explores themes of curiosity, greed, guilt, desire and power, all of which have negative implications. However, at the outset, these themes can be enticing. For example, when Victor contemplates his scientific discovery, which was based on curiosity and desire, he reduces it to an act of greed, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”. This quote represents his disregard for the foundation of his action, which was bettering society with science. Instead, it highlights the danger that accompanies knowledge and power. His character is troubled and has dual sides, which is true to humanity. In order to be a “mature citizen of the galaxy” one must understand the consequences that follow greed and desire.
The key word in Heinlein’s argument is mature, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means “careful and thorough”. Victor is neither careful or thorough in his creation of new life because he neglected to explore he consequences and aftermath of his discovery. Heinlein’s argument can also be supported through the theme of revenge. In Frankenstein, revenge is an emotion which exists on an endless cycle. It is particularly ironic because Victor and the Creature’s revenge are closely intertwined. The Creature pursues revenge on Victor for abounding him, commits murder and horrible acts, and finally Victor is sent to the grave by pursuing revenge on the Creature. Victor’s lack of maturity resurfaces with the theme of revenge as he contemplates the deaths of William and Justine, “My abhorrence of this fiend cannot be conceived…I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I had so thoughtlessly bestowed” (57). As a consequence of Victor’s thoughtlessness, he creates something which is inherently at odds with itself, “Unfeeling, heartless creator! You had endowed me with perceptions and passions and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of man kind”. In an ironic cycle, both characters seek revenge for the isolation from the outside world that they feel. This can also be tied to H.G Wells’ argument, which says that science fiction is appealing because of its “interest of looking at human feelings and human ways from new angles that have been acquired.”
Through a fictional, post-human character (the Creature) and a relatable, seemingly average character (Victor) the novel explores the complexity of human nature in a way that highlights the trouble and danger that all humans are capable of. Ultimately, through the analysis of Victor and the Creator, Frankenstein highlights the absurdity that exists within human nature when tempted by knowledge and power. Furthermore, the novel explores the complexity of human emotion and how disregarding humanity for the advancement of science and technology would cause irreparable damage on society. Shelley’s characters, themes and plot support the arguments from Robert Heinlein and H.G Wells that science fiction is a genre that can teach its readers truths that are inherent to human nature while simultaneously preparing them to move forward in a rapidly advancing world.
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