The desire to make history to discover what remains undiscovered, or to know what remains unknown is a timeless human goal. Although many have failed to realize this dream, a very few have been wildly successful in its pursuit. The immortality afforded these select few has, of course, only served to encourage those who come after. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein is a literary meditation upon this intensely human desire here exemplified by the title character’s quest for personal glory by means of scientific discovery.
Both Victor Frankenstein and the Arctic explorer Robert Walton, whose letters open the novel, possess an insatiable thirst for privileged knowledge of those things that are unknown to the common man. Shelley presents their stories as being in some sense parallel to each other: each is a failure, and each suffers from the same fatal flaw. Walton, a voyager, explores the secrets of the natural earth, in the company of a crew of men on the same mission. Victor works in solitude to penetrate secrets of a metaphysical nature: namely, the principle of life. Though they explore entirely different realms, Walton and Victor are both bound by a common cause. Each longs to further the knowledge of mankind and to glorify his own name.
The reader is invited to stand in the place of Mrs. Seville, Walton’s sister and the recipient of his letters. The selfishness of Walton’s ambition is not immediately apparent; it only becomes clear when the reader takes the subtleties of Walton’s point of view into account (Walling 35). In his opening letter, Walton attempts to assure his sister that he is safe and to remind her of the reason for his journey: he wishes to confer an “inestimable benefit”(2) upon all mankind. The reader may initially perceive this wish as sincere, but this is not precisely the case. Above all else, Walton craves fame, and he presents his desire as altruistic only in order to inspire his beloved sister’s admiration. She, for her part, had anticipated his journey with “evil forebodings” (1).
In his ensuing letters he speaks of his intrepid crew, first briefly introducing his lieutenant, whom he describes as “madly desirous of glory”(5). It is clear that Walton assumes that his crew has the same passion for this journey that he does; he believes that they would willingly sacrifice their lives for the cause. Walton’s assumption is spectacularly mistaken, and reveals him as utterly insensitive to the real motivations of his crew. Walton goes on to say that the life of one man would be “a small price to pay” (11) for the success of the expedition and the advancement of the entire race.
Walton’s “cause,” however, is nothing more than his lust for fame hardly edifying to humanity as a whole. Walton’s self-regard becomes apparent in that he never once asks about his sister’s well being, despite the fact that he has not seen her for a number of years. He believes that she is pining for him and spends every moment awaiting his return. In each of the letters, Walton reveals the disproportionate quality of his ambition through his redundant references to “glory”, “admiration” and “triumph.”
Victor Frankenstein desires to acquire knowledge hidden from the eyes of the common man. He talks of ridding the world of disease as a means of making man immortal. Although his altruism seems genuine, the personal glory that his discovery would provide him dominates his thoughts. He aspires to the absolute, unlimited powers of a god, and believes himself to be a genius, with a natural propensity to discover the secret of life itself. He declares to Walton that men of his extraordinary intelligence “however erroneously directed” (28) almost always provide new benefits for mankind.
The danger of pride and egotism is one of the novel’s central themes (Kiely 166). Significantly, Victor begins his tale with the story of Beaufort, a man whose pride results in his own demise, thereby leaving his daughter an orphan. It is from the union of this girl with the elder Frankenstein that Victor is born.
The decision to adopt Elizabeth Lavenza ends Victor’s days as an only child. If the dangers of pride and egotism are a part of the novel’s foundation, then the horrors of isolation serve as one of its beams of support. Shelley seems to suggest that solitude gives rise to pride and self-love; intimate companionship is thus an absolute necessity for living a moral life.
It is significant that, in Victor’s mind, Elizabeth does not join the family as an equal member but as a “gift” to him; it is as though his parents recognized the hazards presented by his solitude and attempted to save him from them. Even after Elizabeth joins the family and a second child is subsequently born, Victor elects to be alone, avoiding crowds and having only a single close friend. He seems almost proud of his introversion: he regards it as an emblem of his individuality, his elevation above the common man.
The novel reflects Wollstonecraft Shelley’s own philosophical views. She alludes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher of the French Enlightenment, whose theories greatly interested her. Rousseau argued that humanity was in essence good; only the influence of society led to the corruption of man. He also argued, somewhat contradictorily, that humans are at birth weak and innocent and thus require guidance and proper education. Without such guidance, the nature of the isolated man would become irretrievably degraded by society. Rousseau maintained that “A man left entirely to himself from birth would be the most misshapen of creatures” (Stevenson 110). This notion is absolutely crucial to Frankenstein: while it undoubtedly applies to Victor, it finds its most direct and literal illustration in the character of the monster.
Frankenstein’s research, as well as the desire for fame that animates it, so entrances him that he neglects his family and friends. He works in solitude; thus isolated, he becomes incapable of resisting his obsession. The obsessional quality of his labors is apparent in his description of himself through such words as “unremitting”, “dedicated”, “tortured”, “resistless”, “frantic”, and “engaged” (33). He admits that he had become “pale with study”, “emaciated with confinement”; he was so focused on his endeavors that he “lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (34).
Frankenstein was written during the period of the first industrial revolution, and it contributed to some of the developing ideas of the age. The novel (like the Marxist theory that it might be said to prefigure) implies that men embody themselves through their creations (Wolff 153). Wollstonecraft Shelley extends this idea to suggest that a creation can only be a magnified image of its creator.
Many critics have argued that Frankenstein lacks complex characterization, insofar as Victor and his monster have the same personality. The confusion of the name of the creator with that of his monster (who is deliberately given no name) is but one example of the results of this misreading. These critics fail to recognize the philosophical implications inherent in Victor’s mirroring of his monster and vice versa. As man was made in the image of god, the creature is made in the image of his creator Frankenstein. The novel makes this connection explicit through the monster’s realization that his form is but a “filthy type” of Frankenstein’s own (93).
It is on a “dreary night of November”(34) that Frankenstein finally realizes his ambition; the concrete accomplishment, however, spectacularly fails to approximate the ideal (Kiely 162). Victor’s creature-child (the prodigious birth of his unholy experiment) is cobbled together out of fragments of the dead; though Victor chose the fragments for their beauty, the monster is grotesquely ugly. Victor describes the creature as a “catastrophe”, a “wretch” and finally, a “monster” (35); this rapid progression indicates the speed with which his hope of immortality has led instead to ruin. Frankenstein’s decision to abandon his creature reveals his “scientific” pretensions to be a sham: he flees, rather than examining the creature to determine the reason for his failure (Kiely 172).
In creating the monster, Victor longed to produce a superior race of men. The monster can be seen as Victor’s “child”: he is a reproduction of Victor (his uncanny double). The creature, like a child, is expected to mirror Frankenstein’s own desires; Frankenstein imagines that this “new human” will be infinitely grateful to him, and will overwhelm his creator with worship (Brooks 224). The relationship between creator and creation reproduces the Biblical myth of the creation of man albeit in a non-Christian context (Levine 11). Although Victor wishes to play the role of god, he lacks the requisite knowledge (recall that the Christian god is held to be omniscient). His human imperfections can only conceive of something less than himself. The monster thus becomes an eternal self-inflicted wound upon his creator, and serves as a horrific embodiment of the consequences of hubris and ambition.
Appropriately enough, Victor Frankenstein begins his cautionary tale with a warning against the overzealous pursuit of knowledge: “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” (31). His reference to knowledge as a “serpent”(13) once again recalls the Christian myth of Creation: Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise because a serpent persuaded them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Frankenstein’s tale has a profound effect upon Walton: he is filled with remorse for endangering the lives of his crew, and thus consents to turn the ship about. His “moral transformation” is hardly complete, however: he is furious at being deprived of his chance at glory. Frankenstein, too, is hardly redeemed by book’s end: he raises himself from his deathbed to exhort Walton’s crew to continue their expedition despite the fact that they will thus be courting death. He instructs them to “be men” and to be dauntless in the face of the “danger and death” that surround them; only in this way, he maintains, can they acquire glory and avoid disgrace.
Victor Frankenstein dies a failure, insistent that his fate is an “accident of circumstance, the result of insufficient knowledge, or an imperfection in nature itself” (Kiely 160). Though he tells Walton to “avoid ambition” (162), he blames nature itself for his failure and fails to take responsibility for the catastrophic effects of his selfish pursuits. In the world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, redemption (at least for mere men) remains impossible.
Brooks, Peter. “‘Godlike Science/ Unhallowed Arts’: Language, Nature,and Monstrosity”. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Levine, George. “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein”. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. 3-30.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. Candace Ward. New York, Dover, 1994. Based on a reproduction of the third edition of 1831, as originally published by Colburn and Bentley (London).
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987.
Stevenson, Leslie. The Study of Human Nature: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Walling, William A. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Wolff, Robert P. About Philosophy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.