How’s does Mary Shelley present scientific discovery in the opening chapters of Frankenstein
Shelley’s creation in Frankenstein has become synonymous with the dangers of taking scientific ambition too far and in this extract we see the first tangible example of her titular character’s terrifying obsession with transgressing the line between life and death. Writing in a time of rapid scientific discovery, Shelley highlights the ‘age of wonder’ and the concern that science has the ability to ‘unweave’ the rainbow as we see her Modern Prometheus angle in a Neo Faustian pact just for personal scientific passion. Crucially, this extract demonstrates the irresistibility of scientific passion against the trope of male hubris seen in Frankenstein’s wish to change the natural processes in favour of his own scientific intervention. Shelley explores the limits and inherent dangers of scientific discovery.
In the context of contemporary paranoia on the dangers of science, Shelley captures Frankenstein’s apparent obsession with transgressing the line between life and death as some sort of Neo Faustian pact. Frankenstein declares how he has such ” astonishing a power placed within my hands”. The possessive pronoun ‘my’ hints at the personal quest for power linking to the Neo Faustian reflected in the subtitle: The modern Prometheus. The adjective “astonishing” symbolises the Romantic’s sense of wonder at nature and science as well as reflecting the early 19th century’s sense of awe at the power of science. In stark rejection of the imposing figure of the solitary male genius, a figure popularised by the Romantics Wordsworth in his lionising poem, Shelley presents a case for what her husband deemed as “domestic affections” and what a modern feminist interpretation may call the puncturing of the male ego. Frankenstein declare that “no one can conceive” the feelings that bore him forward as he figuratively describes this ambition as “like a hurricane”.
The image of natural destruction captured in this evokes Frankenstein’s own self revising narrative that his work was out of his control reflecting his previous abdication of personal responsibility earlier in the novel when he personifies destiny as being “too potent. “Shelley is perhaps at her most perceptive when capturing the intensive and all consuming passion for the creative arts. Surrounded by writers and thinkers from a young age, Shelley’s own conception of Frankenstein the novel is often framed as some otherworldly mania. Here, her titular character epitomises the human desire to strive towards the next level of man made creation. Frankenstein starts his journey of going further in science than any one person has ever gone ; ” there is continual food for discovering and wonder”. By showing his effort to surpass everyone, he begins to alienate himself from all he loved. His quest to become more like god preventing him from being able to remain in a community of loving humans beings. Shelley’s epistolary form allows Frankenstein a reflective narrative, and although we can never be sure of its veracity we can interpret his repeated attempts to figuratively express his scientific desires as some sorts of fated destiny. Evoking undoubtedly the tale of the original Prometheus, Shelly transforms it for the contemporary reader.
Frankenstein’s ambition and his desire to create a living being has driven him to exceptional lengths and to a point where his mind is starting to fail him. The intensity of his feelings about what he is doing is shown in the use of strong, forceful verbs such as ‘clung’,’pursued’ and ‘urged’. He seems compelled by an outside force to carry out his terrible scheme even though it is also having physical effects as he neglects to look after himself “My cheek had grown pale” reiterating the retrospective dangers of his ambition.
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