The Role of Divine Power in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
It is difficult to think of the world of science and the art of literature intertwined. Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein is an example of these two worlds working together, as it examines the ethical, moral and religious implication of science. During the 1800s, the academic study of natural philosophy quickly changed due to the Enlightenment, toward formal sciences, which focused on the “universal betterment” of mankind. Mary Shelley, who drew inspiration from the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was able to write her famous novel Frankenstein which blends Enlightenment aspects of science and the pursuit of mankind superiority, meanwhile mixing strands of morality, ethical, and religion. Throughout the novel, Shelley employs effectively these elements with the tragic example of Victor Frankenstein and how he serves to generally highlight the danger of man´s thirst for divine knowledge.
Shelley illustrates a disastrous effect of uncontrollable desire to possess the secrets of nature and life. As stated by Hogsette “Frankenstein may no longer be merely a vicarious thrill; it has become, instead, a terrifying mirror reflecting a horrific reality we are unprepared to accept”. Shelly employs an unstated message filled with contradictory language, which implies that man´s curiosity of the secret of life is innate to mankind and nearly so tangled from the human condition.
Early in the novel, Shelley draws attention to both the scientific aspect of an electrical storm as well as Victor´s fascination with natural beauty. As a boy, Victor witnesses “a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak…and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump…[He] never beheld something so utterly destroyed” (Shelley 37). This reveals the beginning of man´s desire to understand the secrets of nature. Nevertheless, this scene also foreshadows the destructive outcome of Victor’s own experiment: once he emerges from his undertaking, he realizes just how destructive his creation is. This moment, while easily overlooked, is a turning point in Frankenstein’s scientific career; it drives his fascination toward sciences.
However, Victor’s desire to create life, later explained in the novel, is based on the outdated principles of Alchemy. According to Hosette, Victor developed a passion of science and metaphysics, longing to understand the mystical and divine causes behind the veil of the physical world. These studies awakened a desire to grasp the metaphysical power animating life and determining reality: ‘I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life. But the latter obtained my undivided attention; wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death’ (Shelly 36).
As a result, Victor Frankenstein aspired to achieve greatness through scientific advancement, but instead he fell victim to his pursuits, which drove him into isolation. But instead of bringing Victor into an outstanding scientific community, his pursuits became so demanding that he locked himself away, and he was divided from his family and friends. In fact, when analyzing the physical effects that Frankenstein’s solitude has on his wellbeing. Rather than continuing his studies and maintaining both his physical and mental health, he describes himself, stating, “I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines…Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime,” (Shelley 57). Which indicates that even Frankenstein is aware of the irrationality of his actions.
Furthermore, the creation of Frankenstein´s monster is presented as an unsurpassed scientific discovery, yet one that brings only sorrow, terror, and devastation to his maker. Hohsette asks “what would happen if man created human life without the biologically and relationally necessary woman and with indifference to God?” In a sense, the creation of the monster is a punishment inflicted upon Frankenstein for his pursuit of knowledge. This ambition of Frankenstein appear to be beyond the range of information available to mortal, and in fact infringing upon knowledge meant only for the Divine.
In the case of Frankenstein, he has meddled with the power of God by creating life without the union of male and female. An act that terrifies him deeply. Along with echoing back to Enlightenment experiments and Victor’s own personal toils, the feeling of superiority is evoked to describe the fateful scene when the creature is given life. The elements used further the notion that scientific discovery is a source of uncertainty:
“It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me…It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open” (Shelley 45).
The superior elements of this quote can be seen in the described setting draws the attention to the fact that Victor Frankenstein does not fully grasp what will come of his creation. Meanwhile, awakening of Frankenstein’s creation is beyond logic; the idea that life can be given to a being that is made up of multiple corpses sewn together is beyond human comprehension, therefore evoking the feeling of superiority. The possibilities are both intriguing and horrifying, much like the description of the scene. This description combines both the sciences and man´s pursuit of knowledge in order to express the eagerness associated with intellectual progress, including disrupting natural lifecycles while attempting to play God.
Furthermore, the feeling of the highest or noble nature along with the fact of science gone wrong can be used to dismantle the notion that scientific advancements are always beneficial for human progress. Just one paragraph after the revelation of Victor’s discovery, one that appears to defy the natural order concerning life and death, Victor delivers a warning regarding the thirst for knowledge that he himself has fallen victim to. “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge…” (Shelley 53), showing a striking contraction in the sense that he states “learn” from him but then mentions the dangers of acquiring knowledge, in other words advising the listener to not pursuit the thirst of the secrets of nature.
Later in the novel, Victor agrees to create a mate for his creature and as described by Oakes “in the face of such pathos, Victor at first agrees to fashion a vitalized Eve for his lonely creature; together they journey to the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, where Victor robs the grave of a recently deceased female adolescent and gets to work. But as his work progresses and memories of his nightmare years in Ingolstadt return, he hesitates and begins to think of what this new being with her own soul will think and do”.
But the, in a moment of panic Victor perceives: “the first results of those sympathies which the daemon would thirst for would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I a right…to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” (Shelley 203). This quote is the description of a new race of horrific creatures populating the planet for an indefinite amount of time, thus being an element of superiority in that it is both irrational to believe that it is within the realm of possibilities to imagine the outcome of such a situation. This premonition is also a backlash against scientific progress because advancement in Victor’s scientific endeavors would not aid human progress, but rather delay the progression of the human race due to competition with unimaginable superior beings.
To Finalize, Shelley wrote Frankenstein during an age where scientific advances were exploding rapidly. The discovery of such concepts as electricity had the power to effectively shake the foundations of previously established constructs and truths about the natural world. What is interesting to remark, is that these issues considered very ‘modern’ in Shelley’s day continue to be widely known within our present century; our society currently struggles with such issues as: artificial intelligence, cloning, DNA, genetics, neuroscience, and stem cells among many more, which ultimately leads to controversy regarding the roles, uses, and limitations of science. Mary Shelly´s art of literature exists not as a fixed representation of a period in history, but as a continued questioning on the role of science in human progress, technology, and evolution.
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