Humankind has been unravelling the secrets of the universe for millennia, discovering more about the world in the process; but will we ever reach a point where we know too much? That is indeed the premise of Shelley’s “The Modern Prometheus”; a presentation of the consequences a man faces for knowing more than he can control. In Frankenstein, the idea of knowledge always seems to be linked with the source of the protagonist’s abundant feelings of foreboding and misery. The protagonist changes ascetically during his pursuit of greater knowledge with high hopes for his success, but Shelly forbids the better outcome for Victor. Knowledge is vetted as a negative concept in Frankenstein by haunting the primary protagonist with a sense of isolation from humanity and blame for the events that were the indirect effect of Victor gaining too much knowledge.
In the first volume, the reader is confronted by the scene when Victor witnesses an oak tree get struck by lightning, which is symbolic to the attainment of knowledge in Prometheus; as fire and lightning were used to represent the power of knowledge in Greek mythology, specifically the ability to have free will (hence “The Modern Prometheus). The lighting is seen as something intriguing and attractive- something that incites Victor to “conquer” it; the knowledge. Victor’s infatuation to the “beauty” of the lightning was distant (literally) yet admirable at first; similar to Walton’s journey, which was also a risky endeavor worth admiring at the start. However, Victor does not control his “distance” from knowledge, which is shown when he got closer to the oak tree, he saw nothing but a blasted stump, which foreshadows his state of being later when he applies the forbidden knowledge he has gained. Shelly ostensibly implies the cliche that “the more you know, the more you don’t know,” which accurately describes Victor’s character development, as the more knowledge he gained, the more woefully ignorant he becomes. Even after Victor tastes the consequences of his forbidden knowledge, Shelly renders Victor to be incapable of acquiescence to the dangers of this knowledge, and continues to extend his grasp to the unknown, as Shelley writes, “So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (3:46). Shelley uses language that conflicts with the zeitgeist of the early 1800s- a time when the Catholic Church would censor and restrict the growth of knowledge and understanding of the realm of science and nature. Victor would be the one to “pioneer a new path” and discover the world’s “deepest mysteries of creation,” a task that questions the origins of human nature-something that was barred and prohibited by the Catholic Church. Unlike Walton who was able to realize the boundary between reality and the dangerous unknown, Victor proceeds to “dig” up the secrets of human nature, which is portrayed in the scene where he literally digs up graveyards to construct his amalgamation of the knowledge he gained. The idea of learning through discovery is something that was considered daring, which means that it can also be dangerous- like the monster.
Ambition also plays an important role in the novel, serving as an additional stimulus to Victor’s acquisition of knowledge. It has already been established that knowledge (in “Frankenstein”) is a dangerous element to challenge, so the question remains: Why would an intellectual like Victor lack such forethought in the first place? Shelley asserts in the novel an overwhelming sense of ambition in Victor’s character, blinding him from considering the further repercussions of creating the monster. Victor’s emotional response shadows his logical reasoning, and as result, no degree of consolation can save him from the nonrefundable knowledge that consumes him; similar to the fire that slowly burns away the oak tree after the strike. Victor himself acknowledged his own sin, as he states, “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”(2:38); essentially, it was not in pursuit of evil that Victor had wanted this knowledge, but rather an unavoidable fate that Victor was subjected to as his destiny. Thus, a tragic hero is born-through an obsessive want to challenge the boundaries of human conception, and the internal suffering that Victor experiences; knowledge has indeed spawned a romantically doomed figure. Victor is commenting on how his ability to gain this knowledge and create the monster was decreed by destiny-which is personified in the story to represent how dominant its presence is his life.
This was nonetheless bound to happen, even if Victor had never pursued this quest in the first place, someone else would have in time- as Adam and Eve were bound to eat from the apple of knowledge eventually, one way or another. Therefore, knowledge is dangerous because it is irreversible; once a concept is learned, it either provides the warmth of a calm flame, or ignites into a destructive fire. In “Frankenstein” however, knowledge is primarily destructive to the happiness of the characters, even the monster who had not yet emotionally matured had regret attaining the knowledge of his own birth. Walton is spared from the plague of knowledge, as Victor was able to remind Walton that because knowledge is so liberating, one can easily lose grasp of that which is granted to him, which in Victor’s case, would be his family. Victor thus warns Walton, “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.” Walton is fortunately able to come to a realization that some knowledge is better off being left outside the human sphere, where it cannot harm Walton from enjoying the “little things” that nature has to offer. this statement of Victor Frankenstein reflects the thoughts of Mary Shelley about the trends of the current times. It was the early 1800’s, science was in its infancy, a new fad spreading like wildfire, and it aroused in people the pursuit of knowledge. It was spurred by the recently kindled interest in scientific discoveries and the recently passed “Age of Enlightenment.” This was a time when morality and religion were questioned and logic and science were seen as better tools for solving world problems. The problem seen though was that people were passionate, as the movement was new, excited often in a way that clouded judgment. This is the attitude that Mary Shelley tries to portray in Victor Frankenstein.
Shelley, therefore, concludes that knowledge is something to be enjoyed superficially; like a fire, it is something that should be observed at a distance. One must not dive into the depths of nature’s unknown, but rather appreciate what is there right in front of them- that way one cannot hurt himself in dangerous application of this knowledge. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, as knowing nothing can be the greatest way to truly appreciate nature for what it is. Shelley presents knowledge in a negative manner so that the audience will view the unknown in a positive light- to realize that some things are hidden because they’re meant to be, not because we haven’t discovered them yet. Mary Shelly has successfully used the theme of knowledge to vent out her feelings of fear to a frightening future where man exceeds the boundaries God created in an eloquent, romanticist platform: “The Modern Prometheus.”