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Whereas the great minds of the Enlightenment has placed great value on the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge, the Romantics cautioned that knowledge, unrestrained by a proper respect for the natural order, could lead to despair. There are several episodes in the book that point to the destructive power of knowledge that does not respect proper boundaries. The reader’s impression of Victor undergoes a transformation from a light, idyllic childhood, to a darker, more solitary figure pursing his passion by moonlight at Ingolstadt. His retelling of the story takes on a rushed, obsessive mood as he talks of nights in graveyards and charnel houses, foraging in the ground for human flesh and body parts.
He remarks, “I seem to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.”(Shelley 39) In his obsessive pursuit of knowledge and the power to create life, Frankenstein oversteps the boundaries of nature. In a moment of reflection, Frankenstein warns Walton, “Learn from me… 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.” (Shelley 38)
In a similar manner, the innocence and naivetï¿½ of the monster undergoes a transformation while sitting outside the cottage increasing his knowledge from tales in Ruins of Empire. Retelling this new knowledge to Frankenstein, the monster laments, “I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments…when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away in disgust and loathing.” (Shelley 104)
Having previously been enamored with the beauties of nature, and capability of man, the monster reflected a sense of disillusionment when he asked, “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?”(Shelley 104) Perhaps the most powerful caution against knowledge that does not respect natural laws comes when Shelley invokes the themes of Genesis, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. What more powerful image could there be to prove this point, than that of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s laws, eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge, and being cast out of the Garden of Eden into the dark world?
Shelley’s portrayal of Victor and the monster’s evolution seem to align the innocence of childhood with the Romantic themes of sentiment, emotion, and an idealized view of the world. Victor’s depiction of his childhood seems to be filled with hope and happiness. He retells fond memories of family and friends that appear in stark contrast to the path his life took after the death of his mother. Similarly, the monster is initially described as possessing a childlike inquisitiveness, innocent and optimistic, until the outside world changes him. “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”(Shelley, 84) Experience and knowledge change both of these characters for the worse.
It is only the return of a friend from Victor’s childhood, Henry Clerval, which can pull Victor out of his darkness and rekindle an appreciation for the beauties of nature. Romantics believed that people should look to the natural world around them in order to provide insight into their inner selves. (Spielvogel 152) Frankenstein’s obsessive and reclusive studies cause him to neglect correspondence with his family for two years, and it is only Clerval’s appearance that can draw him out of seclusion and into nature. Their explorations through the countryside restore life to Victor. His renewed appreciation for nature makes him temporarily forget the dark, destructive path he was on. Clerval is the epitome of a Romantic character, well read in books of chivalry and romance, a composer of heroic songs, and an author of tales of enchantment and knightly adventure. (Shelley 23) These are the themes of the Romantic Movement!
Shelley’s depiction of Victor and Clerval are not meant to be an indictment of education and knowledge, or even of science for that matter. According to Patricia Neal, Shelley “considered education essential for improvement.” (Neal) In fact, it is the knowledge the monster receives by reading great works of literature that allow him to develop a sense of awareness and truth about himself. Shelley cautions against the unrestrained quest for knowledge, as Victor warns Walton “you seek for knowledge and wisdom…and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.”(Shelley 15) It is the selfish pursuit of knowledge, to the detriment of an appreciation for natural beauty, which leads her characters down destructive paths.
An important theme of Romantic literature, and one very present in Frankenstein, is the idea that the progression of industrialization would cause people to become estranged from their inner selves, their identity, and the natural world all around them. (Spielvogel 152) The Movement placed a great deal of emphasis on nature and a glorified past because the Industrial Revolution was destroying nature and creating a gloomy environment.
Victor is so immersed in his selfish scientific pursuits that he becomes oblivious to natural beauty all around him, “Never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage, but my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature.” (Shelley 40) Waldman’s characterization of scientists penetrating the depths of nature to discover its secrets, draws attention to industry and Science’s attempt to master the natural world, and the disruption of the delicate balance between humankind and nature that had existed in a previous era. (Shelley 33, Damyanov)
The early days of the Industrial Revolution held so much promise and potential for improving civilization, but the results were not always so beneficial. Similarly, Victor had noble intentions when he began his research, but a lack of self-restraint meant the outcome was destructive. Shelley was alarmed by “the absence of conscience, or awareness of implicit obligation to provide safeguards in scientific creations.” (Neal)
She was concerned about the long-term effects as Victor/mankind focused on his ability to manipulate nature, and lost sight of the bigger picture. The creation that held so much promise in the beginning, whether it was Shelley’s monster or the Industrial Revolution’s machines and science, had become a scourge upon society and a threat to its very existence. Shelley issues an eerie warning as the monster threatens the lives of Victor’s loved ones, “Remember that I have power…you are my creator, but I am the master.” (Shelley 152).
The countless adaptations of Frankenstein that have been drawn from the original, fail to capture the essence of the story and the societal conflict it addressed. Victor Frankenstein’s desire to challenge the laws of nature led him down a path of self-destruction. His pursuit of knowledge and glory consumed him as he lost sight of the larger purpose, and lost respect for the natural world. Shelley intended his story to be a lesson to a rapidly changing society. Originally applied to the Industrial Revolution, these same lessons are still appropriate to a contemporary society engaged in a Technological Revolution.
Bushi, Ruth. “The author is become a creator-God’ (Herder). The deification of creativity in relation to ‘Frankenstein'” October 15, 2002 http://www.kimwoodbridge.com