How Frankenstein Was Discovered
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the paradoxical quality of the concept of “discovery” echoes that found in Milton’s Paradise Lost: initial discovery is joyful and innocent, but ends in misery and corruption. The ambitions of both Walton and Frankenstein (to explore new lands and to cast scientific light on the unknown, respectively) are formed with the noblest of intentions but a fatal disregard for the sanctity of natural boundaries. Though the idea of discovery remains idealized, human fallibility utterly corrupts all pursuit of that ideal. The corruption of discovery parallels the corruption inherent in every human life, in that a child begins as a pure and faultless creature, full of wonder, but hardens into a self-absorbed, grasping, overly ambitious adult. Only by novel’s end does Walton recognize that he must abandon his own ambition (the mapping of previously uncharted land), out of concern for the precious lives of his crew.
The first two occurrences of the word “discovery” occur quite early in the novel, in Walton’s first letter to his sister. He compares his feelings on the expedition to a child’s joy (14). Walton reminds her of his uncle’s large library of “discovery” literature (tales of seamen and adventurers), all of which he devoured as a child. He writes of his disappointment when his father forbade him, on his deathbed, to “embark in a seafaring life” (14). Walton later tells Frankenstein that his crew is on a “voyage of discovery”; it only at the mention of this word that Frankenstein agrees to board the ship (24).
Once on board, Frankenstein recounts his history. Frankenstein, too, was possessed by a youthful fixation: the desire to acquire scientific knowledge, and to create an indestructible man (40). He remarks that science is “a perpetual craving for discovery and wonder,” and tells Walton that he solved the most impenetrable of scientific mysteries: the principle of life (49). Though the “stages of discovery” were diligently performed, his “astonishment” soon gave way to “delight and rapture”; the “overwhelming” nature of his achievement erased all the grim steps that had led to its fruition (51).
The catastrophic effects of “discovery” appear, in a slightly different form, in two other places in the novel. The creature’s first victim is Frankenstein’s brother William; a young girl, a friend of the Frankenstein family, is wrongfully accused of the murder. Ernest Frankenstein remarks, ” ‘[T]o us the discovery we have made [of the girl’s guilt] completes our misery’” (76). The monster describes his reading of Ruins of Empires, and weeps over the section detailing the “discovery of the American hemisphere… and the hapless fate of its original inhabitants” (116).
Walton’s idea of discovery consists of pure adventure and the childish pursuit of glory. “I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of part of the world never before visited; my enticements induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat on an expedition of discovery up his native river” (14). Walton’s memory of his father’s deathbed command that his son not become a sailor reinforces the reader’s sense of his childish naïveté, as well as serving to foreshadow the disastrous end of his eventual voyage.
Frankenstein needs to be told that Walton’s ship is on a “voyage of discovery”: as Walton says, “Upon hearing this he appeared satisfied, and consented to come on board” (24). He can only associate with those who are equally desirous of breaking new ground.
Discovery begins to acquire negative associations, however, the moment Frankenstein begins his narration. What one unearths may be worthless or misleading, as Frankenstein’s childhood reading of Agrippa makes clear: “A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and, bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, ‘Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash’” (38). Shelley again connects the word “joy” with “discovery,” and again contrasts that discovery’s initial optimism with its disappointing result. But Frankenstein’s father does not provide the reason for his contempt (the fact that Agrippa’s work has been disproved and is obsolete), and thus the young scholar continues “to read with the greatest avidity”; his desire for knowledge must be satiated (39). Indeed, he holds grandiose dreams of the “discovery [that would] banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (39-40) Frankenstein’s and Walton’s ambition is grounded in flaws: naïveté, fallacious reasoning, and the selfish desire for glory. These defects deprive discovery of its facade of idealism, and reveal the human weakness and greed beneath.
Frankenstein’s initial experiments lead him into a cycle of “scientific pursuit [in which] there is continual food for discovery and wonder” (49). Frankenstein’s desire for omnipotence is nearly satisfied by his unearthing of the principle of life. He concedes that some divine “miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable” (51). As with the other discoveries, the meticulousness of his scientific plans stand in sharp contrast to the poverty of his moral ones. His ecstasy at his triumph serves to thoroughly shroud the systematic science that prefaced it: “[All] the steps by which I had been progressively led to [the discovery] were obliterated, and I beheld only the result” (51). Shelley questions the necessity of such a triumph: as Clerval’s father says before granting Clerval his “voyage of discovery to the land of knowledge”: “‘I have ten thousand florins a year without Greek, I eat heartily without Greek’” (59).
The result of Frankenstein’s obsession with “Greek,” or superfluous knowledge, is the discovery of his brother’s corpse. The scientist is no longer interested in science for its practical purposes: it is inspired by his passion to unshackle himself from human limitations and to become a god. To accomplish this worthless goal, he must subject himself to unrelenting solitary work, forsake marriage, and exile himself from human society.
The creature demonstrates the purer uses of discovery; his discoveries, however, are those made by every person. He wishes to join human society to learn language, the mystery of the emotions, the glories and tragedies of history, and the nuances of family life. He begins like a prehistoric man or, more significantly, like a child discovering fire, food, and shelter. He thereby ensures his physical survival, yet still longs for emotional fulfillment. He refers to language as “a godlike science,” and his vocabulary snowballs from simple nouns to a complex catalog taken from Milton and Goethe. The creature’s expulsion at the hands of the family shifts discovery from the active to the passive voice: the Creature no longer makes discoveries but, as he rages in the woods, is discovered by one brutal, terrified human after another. Shelley imbues his efforts to acclimate himself into humanity with real sympathy and pathos (indeed, the creature is the novel’s most sympathetic character).
Walton learns nothing from Frankenstein’s tale. When forced by his men to safely return from his voyage with mission unfulfilled, rather than venturing forth at the expense of human life, he rages that “the men, unsupported by ideas of glory and honor, can never willingly continue to endure their present hardships… I come back ignorant and disappointed. It requires more philosophy than I possess, to bear this injustice with patience” (208). Shelley’s declaration rings clear despite Walton’s bitterness: to admit the “injustice” of one’s mortality requires “philosophy,” and to hold “ideas of glory and honour” is to “endure present hardships” regardless of the pain you may cause your fellow man. Science which may be described as a desperate addiction to discovery is a fine concept but a dangerous practice. Man’s natural flaws debase any professed altruistic goal; all attempts at discovery are ultimately revealed to be corrupt, selfish, and misbegotten.
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