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Shelley wrote Frankenstein on the back of a century of scientific innovation that inspired a belief in the liberation of mankind, culminating in the French Revolution, and subsequent terror. The novel both celebrates the progress of knowledge, and dismisses it as the product of egotism and unacknowledged emotional needs.
Preeminent figures within Frankenstein echo contemporary scientist Humphrey Davy in their justification for the quest for knowledge by highlighting its limitless possibilities in benefiting humankind, exemplified in Victor and his mentor Waldman.
Delineating science as a tool which could have access to “the most profound secrets of nature”, Waldman regards science to be a methodical study of the material world which has unlimited powers. To extol the growth of human knowledge in this way Waldman influences Victor as his mentor to push the laws of science. Through the use of the frame narrative, Shelley creates parallels between Frankenstein and other characters such as Captain Walton, who courageously want to aspire beyond contemporary limits of mankind.
Percy Shelley’s fascination with galvanism epitomizes Waltons endeavor to “conquer all danger and death”. In both Frankenstein and the Romantic Coleridge’s Rhyme of Ancient Mariner nature appears to resist the will of man as both travel into “unexplored regions” and threaten to violate nature-by shooting the albatross and by creating the monster.
The frontispiece of the novel presents Frankenstein as a “modern Prometheus” who attempted to liberate mankind. Similar to the Promethean overreacher who supplies humans with fire to thus further their existence, Victor cheats death by finding the key to immortality and thus his practices have the same outcome.
Throughout the novel Frankenstein suffers greatly for his transgression of social, moral and natural boundaries, and his tale serves as a warning to Walton against the destructive pursuit of knowledge; in this sense Victor mirrors Prometheus, suffering not by having the continual pain of his regenerating liver being eaten by an eagle but instead by having to watch everyone who he loves die. Shelley presents Frankensteins quest for knowledge as a desire to move beyond the limits of a stifling domestic environment. “I was so guided by a silken cord” opposes Rousseau’s beliefs that “children should be allowed to develop instinctively in order to understand true freedom”. Furthermore if Victor’s father hadn’t dismissed his work so profoundly, Frankenstein “would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin.” This portrays how if Victor hadn’t felt suffocated by this domestic environment he would not have felt as strongly compelled to break the boundaries of human knowledge by creating the creature.
However it can be argued Frankenstein’s desire to push knowledge beyond its limits is portrayed as fuelled by hubris, a vain desire for glory. “destiny too potent” illustrates how Victor is giving himself an excuse for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge by creating the monster. This arrogance is further depicted in the way in which Frankenstein regards himself in comparison to the monster- “A new species would bless me as their creator”. Placing himself on a pedestal like this demonstrates how his desire to create the creature is less to do with pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and can be more accurately interpreted as a desire to play God, as put by Graham Allen: “creating life is a traditional value of God”. The coupling of Frankenstein’s character with Clerval’s suggests Frankenstein lacks interest in the wellbeing of mankind, concerned only in abstract ideas. Whilst Clerval wishes to be remembered “among those whose names are written in story” and contribute to society, Frankenstein contrasts as “it was the secrets of heaven that I desired to learn”. This illustrates how it’s another reality which has captured Frankensteins mind, supporting Rousseau’s theory that children should be brought up free within nature (representing Clerval), as Frankenstein was brought up in the opposite way and he is subsequently unaware of the consequences his actions have upon other people.
As an unreliable narrator, Frankenstein betrays a desire to escape from emotional attachment into solitary research. Upon the death of his mother, Victor retreats to Ingolstadt-not for the desire to push human knowledge beyond its boundaries, but to escape the emotional attachments being forced upon him by his mother’s last wish- to marry Elizabeth. “My mother was dead, but we still had duties”- the use of the word “duties” here refers to his work, feeling trapped by these commitments Frankenstein escapes by losing himself in something which at the time appeared to be an impossible task (to animate a dead body; to create a monster.). The juxtaposition and antithesis presented in Frankenstein’s experiments convey the perversion of nature through science. Developing an intense and peculiar relationship towards his work Victor pushed the boundaries of human knowledge and violates nature. As Moers put: “Frankenstein defies mortality not by living forever but by giving birth.”. “The raising of ghosts or devils… fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought.” demonstrates the childlike curiosity which drove Victor to pursue his experiments which lead to the subsequent perversion of nature through science.
It can be argued that Frankenstein is always pushing knowledge beyond its current limits, in following Waldman’s ideas inspired by Humphry Davy, mirroring Walton in aspiring beyond the limits of mankind, as a ‘modern Prometheus’, and in moving beyond the limits of domesticity. However, one can argue that Frankenstein is not pushing the limits of knowledge, but is instead motivated by personal emotional needs.
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