In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shelley illustrates how the environment tears apart the life of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein. Victor’s generation of a creature from dead matter seemingly deems him an immoral man. However, one often overlooks the fact that Victor is simply the product of his environment. The social and scientific environment that Victor immerses himself in induces his desire to create the monster and compels him to continue its construction. The only environment that comforts Victor is that of nature and of his family. By revealing the manipulative side of society, Shelley shows that even if the monster is Victor’s creation, Victor is equally the creation of his own environment.
In Victor’s world, the value that society places on science eventually incites his obsessive behavior. Throughout his life, people condition Victor to leave behind his interest in old philosophies for the more important concepts of natural philosophy. This scientific society first reaches Victor through his father. Although Victor’s father has no personal experience with the sciences, his knows that the concepts are important to society. Victor explains that his, “family was not scientifical,”(23) but his father still, “expressed a wish that [Victor] should attend a course of lectures upon natural philosophy”(25). His father is also aware that the works of the philosophers that Victor first reads are obsolete. When Victor attempts to share his interest in Agrippa’s philosophy, his father, “looked carelessly at the title page of [the] book, and said, ‘Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash’”(23). In this manner, Victor’s father discourages an interest in philosophy in order to encourage an interest in science – the subject that society says is more significant.
After entering University, Victor’s professors continue to condition Victor for the unnatural deed that he ultimately commits. Professor M. Krempe belittles the works of ancient philosophers from the first time he meets Victor in order to abolish any interest Victor may still have in their works. After Victor confesses to reading the ancient philosophy, Krempe replies, “‘Every minute…every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems, and useless names’”(29). Later, Professor M. Waldman leads Victor to believe that science is the most rewarding study by claiming that natural philosophers, “have required new and almost unlimited powers; [that] they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows”(31). With this claim, Waldman talks about natural philosophers as if they are God, and, thus, instills a sense of awe in Victor. Victor expresses his new enthusiasm for science after his talk with Waldman when he declares, “From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation”(32). Both Victor’s father and his professors extinguish his interest in early philosophers because society deems them rudimentary and claims that ideas of natural philosophy are more consequential.
Once Victor begins his studies, one can see how society’s wishes begin to take over his life. Victor’s obsession with his research proves that the influence he receives from his father and professors works. He explains how tasks that had once been arbitrary and monotonous become enthralling, and, therefore, “the more fully [he] entered into the science, the more exclusively [he] pursued it for its own sake”(32). As his research continues, science slowly begins to take over his life so much so that, his research, “which at first had been a matter of duty and resolution, now became so ardent and eager, that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory”(32). In Victor’s world, science is an intoxicant that feeds upon itself. He claims that, “None but those who have experience them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder”(33). Therefore, once society sucks Victor into scientific research, it is nearly impossible for him to pull himself out. The influence of his father and professors allow Victor to follow a science-obsessed society down a path of destruction.
Victor, himself, argues that the power that a scientific society holds over man is responsible for many evils in the world, not just his creature. He admits that his intoxication is unnatural: “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind”(38). Furthermore, he claims that this unnatural state of mind ruins men all around the world. According to Victor, “if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed”(38). Victor is able to place blame on society for his creature by shedding light on other evils in the world that stem from the same intoxication that Victor feels from research.
This obsession that society induces causes Victor to isolate himself from all other people–an isolation that only makes Victor more troubled and sickly. Before the scientific environment completely pervades through Victor, he has thoughts of returning home. Victor claims that, “[He] thought of returning to [his] friends and [his] native town, when an incident happened that protracted [his] stay”(33). This “incident” was Victor newfound interest in the human body. Furthermore, before Victor leaves for university, he promises his father he will write to him often, but Victor eventually becomes so involved in his research that he knowingly abandons his family. Victor states, “I knew well therefore what would be my father’s feelings; but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination”(37). Eventually, Victor’s confinement worsens his troubled mind and deteriorates his health. After all the time Victor spends on the creature, “[His] cheek had grown pale with study, and [his] person had become emaciated with confinement”(36). Because society tells Victor to put all his effort into building the creature, Victor must isolate himself from society and bring himself illness.
In contrast to the fact that the unnatural technology of society sickens Victor, the natural environment appeases his troubled state. During his sickness, he remarks his inability to relate to the things that once gave him please: “Winter, spring, and summer, passed away during my labours; but I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves – sights which before my work always yielded me supreme delight, so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation”(38). He further remarks about natures’ power over him after his brother’s death, he claims, “When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations. A serene sky and verdant fields filled me ecstasy”(51). Even before he developed his passion for science, Victor admits to delighting in nature: “The natural phenomena that take place every day before our eyes did not escape my examinations. Distillation, and the wonderful effects of stream, processes of which my favorite authors were utterly ignorant, excited my astonishment”(24). Only the natural environment, in contrast to his unnatural studies that society forces him to complete, has the ability to appease Victor of his madness.
Under the umbrella of natural environment falls love – more specifically, the love Victor shares with his family and friends. Just as love is a natural innate human emotion, the creation of the monster is, conversely, an unnatural process. After creating the monster, Victor feels dreadful, and runs away. However upon seeing Clerval, he remarks, “Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval; his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollection. I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy”(41). At this point in the novel, it is almost as if Victor lives two different lives: one in peace with his family, and the other in hell with his creature. When he takes Clerval back to his apartment he remarks how he, “dreaded to behold the monster; but feared still more that Henry should see him”(42). Even after Victor becomes sick again, he remarks how being with his family is his only cure: “But I was in reality very ill; and surely nothing but the unbounded and unremitting attentions of my friend could have restored me to life”(43). When Clerval is around, Victor finally feels at peace. He claims “A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your [Clerval] warmed and opened my senses; I became the same happy creature who, a few years ago, loving and beloved by all, had no sorrow or care”(51). In this way, society slowly tears Victor apart—society pulls him toward the unnatural while Victor’s humanness pulls him to the natural, thus, seemingly creating two different lives.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one can argue that it is not Victor who creates the monster, but rather that society vicariously creates the monster through Victor. The pursuit of knowledge intoxicates Victor in such a way that he cannot deny his urge to create life from dead matter. In one part of his life, Victor’s society compels him to complete this unnatural task, while on the other, he relates to the natural emotions evoked by nature and love. Unfortunately, in Victor’s world, the whole of society lusts for what is new. In this light, Shelley’s Frankenstein, illustrates an allegory that attempts to warn people about the danger of knowledge and technology in a greedy society. Just as Shelley had Victor tell Walton: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow”(35). Perhaps through her novel, Shelley hoped to demonstrate the malicious effects of a greedy society obsessed with unnatural tasks, such as new technology, instead of a society content with the wonders of nature.