By Anna Popnikolova, Assistant editor-in-chief

Frankenstein, characterized by the resurrection of a lifeless monster by a mad scientist; referred to as a gothic novel, science fiction, a fantastical tale of unorthodox science experiments. But, above all else, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a cautionary tale. In fact, the subtitle of the story in some editions is The Modern Prometheus, referencing the myth of the Greek god who reached beyond his purview to give fire and, symbolically, civilization, to mankind. Frankenstein seeks to warn the reader not to seek too far for knowledge, to be content as they can be with what they’ve learned so far and not to thirst too much for the discovery of the undiscovered. New knowledge can be beautiful, it can be rewarding, but it can be dangerous. It can be cruel, and placing the pursuit of knowledge over the pursuit of happiness is not the way life should be lived.

This, of course, is told through the eyes and experiences of our protagonist, Victor Frankenstein: “I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” (26-27) The basis of the story is Frankenstein telling his story to Walton, who also desires to unearth new knowledge of the universe. Frankenstein is cautioning Walton on this, explaining to him how new knowledge can be more dangerous than living in peaceful, quiet oblivion.

The means by which this learning is achieved can be physically detrimental to those who wish to achieve it; in order for Frankenstein to succeed in the creation of his monster, he dedicated two years of his life entirely to his work. He barely ate, barely slept, didn’t leave his work space and did not see the sun once in those near two years, during which he was shut in, dissecting, working on his creation in a manic fervor: “I did not watch the blossom or the expanding leaves — sights which before always yielded me supreme delight, so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation. The leaves of that year had withered before my work drew near to a close and now every day shewed me more plainly how well I had succeeded. But my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety, and I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than an artist occupied by this favorite employment.” (29). Even after he was finished, the sheer shock from the stress of realizing what it was that he had actually managed to piece together and breathe life into was enough for him to fall ill for months. During that period of time he “was lifeless, and did not recover my senses for a long, long time. This was the commencement of a nervous fever, which confined me for several months.” (33) The work Victor was doing destroyed his health, he was sickly and weak, pale and severely changed by his seclusion from the world during the time of his creation.

Aside from the detriment of physical health, Victor’s work also destroyed his personal relationships. From the beginning of the story, the start of chapter II, we immediately were learned just how close Victor was with his family, and how important they were to him. Aside from the suffering of some familial tragedies, like the death of his mother, his entire family life was always very happy, all his family members were important parts of his life. He grew up with Henry Clerval, his best friend, and Elizabeth Lavenza, his cousin and future wife. His parents were kind and fair, and he had a happy childhood; he was sad to leave them when he departed for Ingoslad and wrote them often until he began to work on the monster. For two years straight, he had no contact with the outside world. He didn’t send or respond to letters, he didn’t leave his room, he didn’t talk to Elizabeth, or Henry, or his father. He lost touch with M. Waldman, his favorite professor, who he was incredibly intellectually close with. And, even after he recovered himself and his senses, his relationship with his teachers was damaged by his trauma, as he described the way Waldman “inflicted torture when he praised, with kindness and warmth, the astonishing progress I had made in the sciences.” (38). His relationship with others close to him was similarly damaged.

With the personal danger of the knowledge Victor seeked, came the danger to those who were close to him. The monster, after its creation, was responsible for the death of Victor’s brother, William. William was very important to Frankenstein and the rest of the family, and his murder devastated them, directly causing another death in the family. Justine, a close family friend who had lived with them for years, and was like a sister to everyone, was blamed for the murder and executed — even when she hadn’t been responsible. No one had been able to excuse her, no one else had been found to blame, and she was unjustly punished. Of course, this was the fault of Frankenstein, if indirectly, still fully his fault: for creating the monster, for setting it loose, for not cleaning up his messes. I suppose, most of all, blame falls to him for the desperation he felt towards the attainment of that knowledge: how hard he worked for something so vile, his mad pursuit of the creation. And he suffers the consequences of his curiosity, as do others: “I suffered living torture. It was to be decided, whether the result of my curiosity and lawless devices would cause the death of two of my fellow-beings: one a smiling babe, full of innocence and joy; the other far more dreadfully murdered, with every aggravation of imfamy that could make murder memorable in horror. Justine also was a girl of merit, and possessed qualities which promised to render her life happy: now all was to be obliterated in an ignominious gravel and I the cause!” (48) Before Justine’s trial, which finds her guilty, Victor is consumed by worry — and after, even stronger, the shock and the regret and the horrible guilt overtakes him, for he realizes just what he has done.

He wishes to convey to Walton now, just how horrid curiosity can be; unhealthy obsession with unattainable knowledge can ruin a person’s life. Victor could have been happy. He could have graduated university and gotten married and had kids and been happy, peaceful. But he needed to learn. He needed more of his life. He needed to discover. He needed answers. But sometimes, there is a reason why there are limits to what we can do. In a moment of foreshadowing towards the beginning of the novel, Frankenstein comments, “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.” (27) Frankenstein himself, was of course the man who aspires to be greater than what his nature will allow. There is a certain limit to what nature allows, there are some things that should never really be learned.

Some things should just be left questions — unanswered.

One thought on “Frankenstein- Conflict in Knowledge

  1. It’s a familiar theme. Check out Ursula LeGuin’s sci fi masterpiece, The Lathe of Heaven.

    “Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.” —Chuang Tse: XXIII

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