The Role of Science in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
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.
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.