The Role of Science in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Updated on October 10, 2016

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein examines the pursuit of knowledge within the context of the industrial age, shining a spotlight on the ethical, moral, and religious implications of science. The tragic example of Victor Frankenstein serves to generally highlight the danger of man’s unbridled thirst for knowledge, a science without morality; however, a deeper consideration of the novel’s text reveals a subtle contradiction to such an interpretation.

While Shelley exemplifies a disastrous effect of unmitigated desire to possess the secrets of the earth, she employs a subtext filled with contradictory language, which implies that such curiosity is innate to mankind and virtually inextricable from the human condition.

Does science in Frankenstein go too far, or is it only natural curiosity?
Does science in Frankenstein go too far, or is it only natural curiosity?

Perversion of the Natural Order

The creation of Frankenstein's monster is presented as an unsurpassed feat of scientific discovery, yet one that brings only sorrow, terror, and devastation to his maker. In a sense, the creation of the monster is a punishment inflicted upon Frankenstein for his unbridled pursuit of knowledge. This reflects themes presented in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, in which Faustus is condemned to hell for his overreaching ambition. These ambitions of Faustus and Frankenstein appear to be beyond the range of information available to mortal, and are in fact infringing upon knowledge meant only for the Divine. In the case of Frankenstein, he has usurped the power of God by creating life without the union of male and female.

Deconstructing the Speech of Victor

Just one paragraph after the revelation of Victor’s discovery, one that appears to defy the natural order concerning life and death, Victor delivers a warning regarding the thirst for knowledge that he himself has fallen victim to. “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge…” Yet this statement is fraught with contradiction. Victor first commands his listener to “learn” from him and then paradoxically warns of the danger of knowledge. Knowledge is inextricably linked with the learning; by nature one leads to the other. Victor could have easily inserted a similar phrase such as “listen to me.” Because he has not, the clause “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge” directly contradicts the command, implying that the listener ought not to heed his advice.

Victor goes on to asserts that the man “who believes his native town to be the world,” is “happier” than one imbued with the thirst for knowledge. While it appears that Victor is endeavoring to glorify a simpler, more provincial life, there is a condescending tone at work. The use of the word “believes” implies ignorance; it insinuates that such a man holds an opinion that is not based in fact or empirical evidence. The use of the word “native” also implies a primitive person; in Shelley’s time the word would have had far deeper implications of ignorance than the manner in which it is used today. While the word appears as synonymous with “hometown,” the effect on the nineteenth-century listener is to evoke images of a man who is primitive, largely uneducated, and perhaps only a few degrees removed from the “savages” of distant regions. Subtly implied through such subtext is the notion that it is, in fact, the ambitious man that is held in higher esteem, and that it is far superior to thirst for knowledge than to languish in ignorance.

Curiosity and Discovery

Victor’s speech is grandiose in scale as he purports to speak for a vast section of humanity. Victor effectively becomes a representative of mankind, who is supposed to eschew knowledge beyond “what nature will allow,” yet in reality finding this quest for knowledge irresistible. In this language of double meanings, Victor, and perhaps even Shelley through him, is making a statement that the fundamental nature of human experience may indeed be to push beyond and surpass the natural limits that have been created. In Shelley’s time, with the advent of such spectacular scientific breakthroughs as electricity, there is certainly much evidence for this mode of thought. Though Victor offers a warning against unbridled curiosity, he serves also as a harbinger of the discoveries to come, discoveries made possible through the inability of mankind to accept its natural limits.

The Future of Science

Shelley wrote Frankenstein during an age where scientific advances were exploding rapidly. The discovery of such concepts as electricity had the power to effectively shake the foundations of previously established constructs and truths about the natural world. What is interesting to note, however, is that these issues, considered very "modern" in Shelley's day, continue to resound within our present age. Our society currently wrestles with such issues as artificial intelligence, cloning, DNA, genetics, neuroscience, and stem cells, which ultimately leads to controversy regarding the roles, uses, and limitations of science. The book exists not as a static representation of a period in history, but as continued fodder for timeless questions on the role of science in human progress, technology, and evolution.

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    • profile image

      4 years ago

      ssssssss

    • Anaya M. Baker profile imageAUTHOR

      Anaya M. Baker 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Alexander, you're right on the origin. Shelley apparently took a little while to think up her story, (she was relatively young at the time, and spending time with some literary heavyweights), but once she got going, the story she came up with became the start of the novel. Thanks for dropping by:)

    • Alexander Brenner profile image

      Alexander Brenner 

      6 years ago from Laguna Hills, California

      I had always heard that Shelly wrote Frankenstein in a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The comparison to Faustus is so apt, I am ashamed I haven't thought of it. Very interesting Hub, I wonder if you could speak to the origin of the novel.

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great hub,

      I agree with your analysis of the novel. As a species we tend to forget that science and technology as we know it in the last 200 years has changed beyond all recognition.

      When we consider the changes going on and accelerating all around us Shelley is sounding a warning across the void with this Gothic masterpiece.

      Well written and very thoughtful and thought provoking hub. Voted up

    • Anaya M. Baker profile imageAUTHOR

      Anaya M. Baker 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for the information on the metaphysical trend with the Shelley's, Scarlet. I didn't know about that, but it's a fascinating aspect to an already interesting family!

    • profile image

      Scarlet Scrivener 

      6 years ago

      Frankenstein is probably the best novel I've ever read. It's possible that the Shelley's - all of them - were aware of another kind of science, altogether. There are lots of metaphysical themes in the writings of Mary, her husband and her father.

      Accolades and Vote Up!

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      7 years ago from Texas

      The story is timeless, as man continues to gain mastery over life in it's simplest forms. We're manipulating genes to make discoveries, but how long before we begin manipulating to control and create traits? Thank you for sharing.

    • kesinee profile image

      Sranunta Lamduan 

      7 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

      This is one of my scary movie I love ever. If Victor born in our age, there might be a clonning mistake Frankenstein instead, LOL.

    • Einhorn Wisdom profile image

      Einhorn Wisdom 

      7 years ago

      Anaya, this is a comprehensive hub on a classic novel. You succeed by showing modern readers how Shelley's novel is relevant to the present. Currently, mankind has enough scientific power to destroy itself, and insight into the consequences of scientific actions are more critical than ever. There is a great need for wisdom and patience in our greatest time of growth. Kudos to you and to Mary Shelley for exploring this topic.

    • cdub77 profile image

      cdub77 

      7 years ago from Portland Or

      Anaya, this was a nicely written hub. I've written some literature hubs myself and it's always nice to see other writers taking an analytical view of the classics. Excited to read more of your hubs!

    • Anaya M. Baker profile imageAUTHOR

      Anaya M. Baker 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Tom - powerful observation! It seems that no matter how far our society "progresses," we still seem to struggle with the same questions and dilemmas...

      Joyus - I'd say go for the hub anyway! The beauty of Frankenstein is the myriad of themes packed into this one little book, and each one packs a punch in its own right. There's so many different angles to take on Shelley's portrayal of science that we could probably write a whole series on the subject! If you do write it, do let me know, I'd love to see another POV on it :)

    • Joyus Crynoid profile image

      Joyus Crynoid 

      7 years ago from Eden

      This morning I was considering writing a hub about science and Mary Shelley's prescience, but you beat me to it. Great job! The self-contradiction is a nice insight that I hadn't thought of. Now I have to go back and read the book...

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 

      7 years ago from Ohio

      First....Wonderful Hub. I think that Mary Shelly's writing of Frankenstein was in a way...prophetic. More and more men are wanting to become little gods. They will put in 20 hour days to search for cures of rare diseases...yet almost 30 thousand children die each day of malnutrition.

      Much like Dr. Frankenstein bringing the dead to life...should have been more concerned with keeping the alive...alive first.

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