Scientific Quest in Frankenstein
In Mary Shelley’s chilling novel Frankenstein, certain characters represent major thematic ideas that Shelley endeavors to criticize or praise. The main character, the scientist Frankenstein, is used to exemplify the consequences of uninhibited, systematic manipulation of the natural world. Similarly, the explorer Walton, whose Arctic voyage provides a framework for Frankenstein’s narrative, strengthens Shelley’s critique of this type of science by typifying the same traits at an earlier stage. On the other hand, the Creature produced artificially in Frankenstein’s laboratory demonstrates some of the horrifying effects of Frankenstein’s work. In addition, the Creature provides a contrast to the disciplines that are critiqued by Shelley through the aforementioned characters. Thus, Shelley employs the prominent figures in her novel in an effort to address two contrasting types of scientific inquiry, and the morality associated with each.
The most important characteristic of both Frankenstein and Walton is that they have an obsessive desire to use human reason to penetrate the inner workings of nature. In accordance with the Romantic ideals with which the novel is associated, Shelley criticizes this type of inquiry, and consequently there is usually a negative and unnatural atmosphere created by these characters’ narratives. The novel opens in an epistolary format, with Walton describing his quest to explore undiscovered regions of the Arctic to a faraway sister. Walton refers to his project by stating that “its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes” (Shelley 1). He also details his work ethic, explaining “there is something at work in my soul which I do not understand. I am practically industrious – painstaking, a workman…there is a love for the marvelous…which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions” (7). Shelley’s diction creates a foreboding and unnatural impression on the reader, particularly at the mention of an unknown yet powerful force that is driving Walton. Spiritual words such as “phenomena” and “heavenly” imply that Walton is attempting to reach beyond his humanity and obtain knowledge that is not necessarily intended for him.
The same force acts upon Frankenstein in his similarly unnatural explorations. In his narrative, Frankenstein describes to Walton his own sources of motivation, saying “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired…whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical.. the physical secrets of the world” (23). The narrative continues to describe how, after receiving inspiration from a professor, Frankenstein vowed: “I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (33). After his experiment began, it was apparent that Frankenstein was still under a potent driving force, and he tells Walton, “my present situation was one in which all voluntary thought was swallowed up and lost” (179). Frankenstein’s tale has an atmosphere analogous to that of Walton’s, and spiritual words are placed within his narrative to impart a feeling that he is reaching outside normal human boundaries. Indeed, the object of his studies is referred to as “secrets” in an effort to strengthen this idea. It appears that this type of science has objectified nature.
In addition to an intrinsic motivational force, both Walton and Frankenstein are influenced by egotism. Walton displays this trait throughout his letters, explaining to his sister, “you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind, to the last generation” (2). Again, it is clear that Walton has placed himself above other human beings. Walton’s egotistical nature is also indirectly referred to when he tells his sister that he has been seeking a companion, complaining: “I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans” (4). Rather than desiring a genuine friendship, Walton’s concept of a relationship is based on his egotistical needs. Frankenstein is similarly subject to his own overbearing ego, an idea most clearly demonstrated by the fact that he creates life artificially in the lab, in the hopes that “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” (38-39). Frankenstein’s attempt to replace normal reproduction, an instinct governing humankind, with artificial paternal propagation makes it obvious that like Walton, Frankenstein has placed himself above the rest of the human race. This unnatural relationship with humanity serves as a criticism of ego-driven scientific investigation.
Furthermore, Shelley demonstrates how unchecked hubris and scientific processes lead to alienation and personal neglect. Walton is so blinded by his desire to explore the Arctic that he is willing to disregard his health, as he writes: “I commenced by induring my body to hardship. I accompanied the whale-fishers on several expeditions to the North Sea; I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, and want of sleep; I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day” (2-3). Frankenstein displays the same trait early in his studies, when he describes “I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement” (39). His health continues to decline into relapsing nervous fevers. Frankenstein also becomes so involved in his work that he removes himself socially, as he tells Walton: “the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time” (39-40). This statement stands in stark contrast to the loving and genial upbringing that Frankenstein describes earlier in his narrative. Shelley therefore suggests that fervor for science and research replaces normal physical and emotional states.
The Creature, Frankenstein’s artificial progeny, serves to reveal the damaging effects of objectifying and dissecting nature. This is most obvious in his relationship with Frankenstein, whom he entreats, “I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me” (80-81). However, the Creature’s need for “natural” paternal care is neglected, and he expresses his disappointment by comparing himself to the Biblical Adam: “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence” (110). The Creature notices that while Adam “has come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the special care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature,” he is merely “wretched, helpless, and alone” (110). Because the Creature represents the offspring of unbridled research, his removal from the human race implies that such science can lead to harmful and unnatural dehumanization. Shelley therefore uses the Creature to comment on the moral aspects of methodical study.
Most importantly, the Creature is a foil for Frankenstein and Walton in the sense that he epitomizes a beneficial and natural type of inquiry. Rather than attempting to manipulate and scrutinize nature, the Creature simply learns and is inspired by nature through observation. For instance, the Creature describes coming across a fire and being pleased by the warmth it provided. The Creature details his response: “In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (85). He goes on to learn about how wood fuels the fire, and notes how “the wet wood which I had placed near the heat fried and itself became inflamed. I reflected on this, and by touching the various branches, I discovered the cause” (86). The Creature’s method of learning through observation and thought is juxtaposed with Frankenstein and Walton’s need to manipulate and control nature, thus presenting a practical and favorable form of science. The Creature progresses in the same manner until he eventually learns language, which he refers to as a “godlike science” for its ability to communicate ideas and produce emotion (93). Shelley sharply contrasts Frankenstein’s science with the natural and instinctive experiences of the Creature.
In the same way that Frankenstein’s science has negative and destructive consequences, the Creature’s science generally produces positive results. For instance, the Creature gains the ability to speak eloquently and survive in difficult climates. In addition, the Creature’s narrative often refers to the value of respecting nature rather than dissecting it. He references the healing power of the undisturbed natural world, illustrating his response to a changing season by saying, “My spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy” (96). Also, the Creature tells the reader how before he realized his state of neglect, he felt that “[he] had begun life with benevolent intentions and thirsted for the moment when [he] should put them in practice and make myself useful to [his] fellow beings” (72). Thus, the type of learning and inquiry exhibited by the Creature is practical, useful, and beneficial for mankind. Shelley praises this method of learning over the destructive objectification of nature by contrasting the Creature with Frankenstein and Walton.
In Shelley’s novel, the characters of Frankenstein, Walton, and the Creature are used to exemplify and critique two opposing types of scientific learning. Frankenstein and Walton’s method is destructive and dehumanizing, and accordingly is cast into a negative light in the novel. The Creature’s natural method, in contrast, offers a way to gain knowledge in a positive manner.
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