A recurring theme in “Frankenstein” is the pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery. Indeed, this pursuit is responsible for the main events of the book; in his quest to discover the secrets of creation, Victor Frankenstein designs and builds his monster. “Frankenstein” is thus often interpreted as a warning against the pursuit of knowledge and as a demonstration of its dangers. However, this interpretation is derived from the reflections and recollections of Frankenstein, a man whose creation has devastated and tormented him. His creature tells a different story, recollecting the abuse and negligence he suffers at the hands of his creator and how it prompted his quest for revenge. With this in mind, a different interpretation can be derived from the book: knowledge and science itself isn’t dangerous, but becomes so through its misuse and abuse by society. Thus, Shelley’s warning isn’t about the pursuit of knowledge, but rather about the necessity for scientists and society to be responsible with their creations and discoveries.
“Frankenstein” is a seminal work of science fiction, and its significance towards the genre cannot be understated. Mary Lowe-Evans makes this clear in her “Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Wedding Guest” by saying “most modern science fiction courses honor Frankenstein as the original of the genre. Because it demonstrates the uses of a “false front of scientific thinking as a disguise within which unscientific motives drive the plot, Frankenstein neatly fits into the category it originated” (Lowe-Evans 11). The themes within “Frankenstein” and the messages it conveys have thus become an integral part of this genre, and as such play a significant role in defining how authors approach and interpret the subjects of science and knowledge. Yet more than that, “Frankenstein” continues to have a profound influence on the societal perception of science, scientists, and knowledge; it has contributed to a public perception that science and knowledge is dangerous. Paul Northam details this public perception in his “Legacy of Frankenstein: The Monster is the One in the White Lab Coat”, saying that “Most people have a sense of the extraordinary potential of contemporary biological and genetic research, yet they continue to worry about scientists invading – and, perhaps, transforming forever – the body” (Northam 479). He continues by saying that “journalists… applaud virtually all advances in all the sciences, not just biology; meanwhile, they take significant pains to reassure the public that Frankensteinian consequences are highly unlikely” (Northam 479). In his “The Moral Character of Mad Scientists” essay, Christopher Toumey further articulates this interpretation of science as dangerous, arguing that “to show the mischief made possible by modern medicine, we have the litany of Dr. Frankenstein… simply stated, these stories are a way of shouting “beware of science!” (Toumey 412). The ramifications of a reading of “Frankenstein” as a warning against science are thus clear; it contributes to a public wariness of science and those who practice it. Yet such fears undermine the enormous possibilities of science. As Northam points out, “no reasonable person can condone the idea of turning our backs on the vast potential of genetic research” such as “effective treatments or cures for illnesses such as genetically implicated cancers” (Northam 480). It is with this in mind that a deeper reading of Shelley’s work is needed, and indeed with that analysis a different interpretation of her message is derived.
It is easy to understand why most readers interpret “Frankenstein” as a warning against science. It is very early in the story that the reader is presented with critiques of science. When talking to Captain Walton early in the book, Frankenstein’s first reaction towards talk about the pursuit of knowledge is telling; he immediately responds in a profoundly negative way. Captain Walton, discussing his voyage of discovery to the North Pole, talks about how “with all the favor that warmed me, how gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought” (29). This statement exemplifies the pursuit of knowledge, and parallels can be seen between Walton’s enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of the young Frankenstein towards his own scientific quest; talking later about his early studies, Frankenstein mentions how he “was engaged, heart in soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries which I hoped to make. None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science” (51). Upon hearing Walton’s statement, however, a “dark gloom” falls over Frankenstein as he replies, “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught?” (29). Frankenstein is referring to this pursuit of knowledge, and in his response the reader can clearly detect his anathema of that pursuit and “madness”. This is further reinforced when Frankenstein compares himself to Walton, saying “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (31). He is revealing that his quest for knowledge ultimately caused him harm, and thus the reader can correlate scientific discovery with danger and pain. Before the bulk of the story has even begun, a message of warning is being developed in regards to the dangers of knowledge.
Frankenstein continues by telling Walton to “let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”(29); by recollecting his story, Frankenstein hopes that “when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale” (31). These lines are vital to the interpretation of Shelley’s work as a warning against the pursuit of knowledge. Frankenstein is telling Walton that he is exposing himself “to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am”; the reader can interpret this line as an explicit warning against that pursuit of knowledge because the condition which Frankenstein is seen in, one of great illness and distress, is blamed solely on the ‘dangers’ of that pursuit. Yet these lines are even more significant because of the way they set up the narrative; it is a tale told by Frankenstein to Walton with the intention to warn him about his pursuit and thus provide him with an “apt moral from my tale”.
The story is thus not told from the omniscient third-person, but instead as a first-person narrative. As a result, the reader is exposed to the same moralizing tale to which Walton is exposed. It must be remembered that the narrative of “Frankenstein” is designed in the ‘frame narrative’ manner; multiple frames, and thus multiple character’s perspectives, are presented. The top frame is that of Walton writing letters home to his sister, and we are thus immediately privy to Walton’s interpretation of the story’s events. The next frame is Frankenstein’s story, and the reader is provided with his thoughts and feelings regarding his experiences. It is thus easy to understand how “Frankenstein” can be interpreted as a warning against the pursuit of scientific discovery; the bulk of the plot is revealed through Frankenstein’s negative recollection of his act of creation, his creations subsequent murder of his friends and family, and his resulting misery. The third frame is the creature’s tale, and it is in this frame that the different interpretation of Shelley’s message is developed; the reader is presented with a starkly different perspective on Frankenstein’s creation, and thus the inherent evil of scientific discovery, when the narrative shifts from Frankenstein recollecting his own experiences to the creature recounting his.
This new frame allows the reader to experience the creature’s first-person narrative, and thus recognize a different source to the ‘evils’ which Frankenstein has described the creature to have committed. The creature describes his initial experiences, his first sensations and discoveries, and then begins to tell a tale of his interactions with a family of cottagers. It is in these interactions that the moral character of the creature is revealed. He observes the family’s positive interactions with each other with admiration, and laments the sufferings of poverty they experience. In order to alleviate these sufferings, he takes it upon himself to cut wood for the family and stops stealing from their food so “that it might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people” (117). By performing these tasks in order to halt further suffering, he shows himself to be compassionate and selfless. If he was innately evil and dangerous, then such actions and feelings would not have been elicited by the family’s suffering. He hopes to reveal himself to the family, saying that “when I contemplated the virtues of the cottagers, their amiable and benevolent dispositions, I persuaded myself that when they should become acquainted with my admiration of their virtues, they would compassionate me and overlook my personal deformity” (133). These lines are incredibly significant; they demonstrate the creature isn’t inherently evil, but rather far from it: he has an inherently benign character. He “admires” the cottagers’ virtues of their “amiable and benevolent dispositions”. The positive reaction to these positive qualities reveals that the creature wishes to associate himself with them. He counts upon the kindness of the family to overlook his personal deformity, and it is here where the Shelley’s true message about science and knowledge begins to be developed.
Upon revealing himself to the family, he is attacked and driven out; a “fatal prejudice clouds their eyes” (136) causing them to mistreat a being who desired only companionship and kindness. The creature becomes miserable because he “admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them” (123). Again, the benign moral character of the creature is revealed by his admiration and approval of positive traits. Yet the loneliness he experiences results from the unjust rejection of him by humanity; he asks whether there “was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or to assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies?” (138). The reader begins to recognize that the injustice and mistreatment he is subject to has begun to corrupt his character; his “sufferings were augmented also by the oppressive sense of the injustice and ingratitude of their infliction. My daily vows rose for revenge – a deep and deadly revenge, such as would alone compensate for the outrages and anguish I had endured” (143). Indeed, the corruption of his character is most exemplified by his statement that “I am malicious because I am miserable” (147).
Thus, from the creature’s narrative a different interpretation of the source of danger and evil in knowledge and discovery can be developed; that danger does not come from the science itself, but instead comes from the corruption of that knowledge by human society. Theodore Ziolkowski, in his “Science, Frankenstein, and Myth”, supports this interpretation by questioning “why does she [Shelley] spend six chapters – a quarter of the book – recapitulating the monster’s adventures, which are unrelated to the rest of the plot? She wants us to understand that Frankenstein’s creation is not evil in itself but has been made that way by society” (Ziolkowski 42). He continues by arguing that “we also find an emphatic statement that scientific creation is morally neutral, with a pronounced capacity – indeed, even a predisposition – for good, until it is corrupted by human society” (Ziolkowski 42). As Ziolkowski argued, the creature demonstrates a definite capacity for good; he helps the family by cutting their wood, helps save a girl from drowning, and wants to be integrated into peaceful and loving society. It is not until the creature is mistreated by humanity and rejected unjustly because of his horrible visage without consideration for his positive traits that he becomes the monster that Frankenstein thinks he is all along.
Having demonstrated that scientific discovery and knowledge is inherently neutral but corrupted by human society, Shelley has developed another message about knowledge and science; it is the responsibility of the scientist and society to prevent the misuse and abuse of that knowledge. Christopher Toumey argues that “ultimately the evil of science is depicted and condemned principally in terms of the character of people who are scientists” (Toumey 415). The reader can observe this to be the case in “Frankenstein”; Shelley does not present the science and creation itself as evil, but shows that it becomes so through the irresponsible actions of its creator. Thus, her warning and condemnation of knowledge is not one against the knowledge itself, but against the scientists who are irresponsible with their discoveries. The creature’s murderous rampage is evil, even if he isn’t innately evil himself, and it is the responsibility of society to prevent that evil from starting and ensure that it is stopped. Shelley portrays Frankenstein as scientist of growing moral character; his initial irresponsibility sets in motion his creation’s corruption, but by the end of the book he has accepted the responsibility to prevent further damage caused by his corrupted creation. In this growth of his character, she demonstrates what she views the actions of the responsible scientist should be.
Though the most important act of irresponsibility comes when Frankenstein sparks life into his creature and immediately abandons him, the actual act of creation itself is steeped in irresponsibility too. Abigail Bloom points this out in her “The Literary Monster on Film”, arguing that the circumstances surrounding Frankenstein’s pursuit of knowledge and his act of creation contribute to the corruption of science. She says “Frankenstein states that he takes upon himself the creation of a new species to benefit mankind… but his actions are more selfish than magnificent. Frankenstein’s isolated situation has led him to a scientific possibility devoid of moral constraints. Circumstances come together to lead to the creation and the tragedy it entails” (Bloom 15). This is argued further in “Mary Shelly, Frankenstein”, where the author points out that the creation of knowledge in isolation is act of irresponsibility. He says “new and unfamiliar knowledge can only be troubling to those who are unacquainted with its origins. The only way to introduce knowledge is to demonstrate it, that is, to display it and in doing so, to demystify it” (Schoene-Harwood 154). In his isolated circumstances, away from human interaction, Frankenstein cannot consider the moral implications of his work nor develop the means for it to benefit or interact with mankind. It is thus unsurprising that human society reacts negatively to the ‘mystified’ creation, thereby corrupting it, because Frankenstein failed to reveal this knowledge and creation to the world, and instead worked in isolation. Furthermore, by pursuing this knowledge without even acknowledging or recognizing the possibility for it to be corrupted, even if it may be inherently neutral, Frankenstein is setting himself up for disaster.
This corruption comes immediately when Frankenstein quickly abandons his monster. Toumey affirms this, pointing out that Frankenstein, “shocked by what he had done … did the most immature thing imaginable; he abandoned his creature, leaving it to roam through Bavaria and Switzerland” (Toumey 424). Frankenstein’s immediate abandonment of his creature is the ultimate source of all of the troubles in the book; as Toumey says, the abandonment thus turns the creature loose to be acted upon and rejected by a hostile human society. Ziolkowski further reinforces this argument, pointing out that “if Victor Frankenstein had not been overcome by his initial disgust, if he had responded to his creature with love and understanding, it might have become an instrument of good rather than evil” (Ziolkowski 43). After all, because the creature becomes corrupted by the continual rejection of him by society, it can be inferred that his innately good character would be preserved and reinforced if it was met with immediate compassion and kindness. Indeed, Frankenstein points out that he is bound by a responsibility to his creature shortly before his death. He says “In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far was in my power, his happiness and well-being” (219). However, Frankenstein breaks this bond of responsibility, neglecting his creature’s happiness and well-being in full. Through Frankenstein’s own words, Shelley is demonstrating that the neglectful irresponsibility of the scientist towards his discoveries, knowledge, and creation can lead to the dreadful consequences which the scientist Frankenstein experiences.
Yet Shelley’s message extends beyond a scientist’s initial responsibility for his creation. The scientist must maintain vigilance in being responsible with his work, and Shelley demonstrates this necessity by having Frankenstein’s moral character develop. Toumey points out this development, saying that “shortly after it caused two deaths, Frankenstein met his creature face to face and, in a long conversation, realized that he must take responsibility for his creation” (Toumey 424). At first, he agrees to build a female companion for his creation, recognizing that “did I not as his maker, owe him all the portion of happiness that it was in my power to bestow?” (148). He feels bound to the responsibility towards his creature which he initially reneged upon. Yet more than just that, he recognizes the opportunity to rid himself and society of the creature for good, and thus prevent further damage by it. By having a female companion, the creature will leave humanity alone forever, and Frankenstein only consents to the creature’s demands “on your solemn oath to quite Europe forever, and every other place in the neighborhood of man” (150). He feels that building this creature is thus a responsibility he must take on, for he “concluded that the justice due both to him and my fellow creatures demanded of me that I should comply to his request” (150). He is beginning to accept that he holds the power to stop his creation, and that is indeed his responsibility to act upon that power. However, upon further reflection, Frankenstein recognizes the danger in the work he is about to undertake, realizing that “even if they were to leave Europe… a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” (171). Frankenstein realizes that the creature, which has now been corrupted by his initial irresponsibility and the maliciousness of human society, has the potential and the will to conduct further evil. A pair of these creatures is capable of propagating a race which could terrorize man like how the creature has terrorized Frankenstein. He also recognizes that creating another creature might not resolve his problems, for “she … might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other… she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species” (171). Thus, Frankenstein makes the decision to renege on his promise and tears up the work he had done on the female. By doing so, he has accepted and acted upon a responsibility he owes mankind which is greater now than the responsibility he owes the creature; he is preventing the creature from the opportunity to spread its evil. Frankenstein makes mention of this greater responsibility when talking to Walton, saying that “my duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature” (220). Of course, by failing to meet his side of the promise, Frankenstein inflicts the wrath of the creature upon himself; the creature begins a murderous rampage of his friends and family. Thus, Frankenstein must accept and act upon the ultimate responsibility: he must destroy his creation which has been corrupted and which is acting with malicious evil. By destroying his creation, he can end the suffering which it has caused, and prevent the creature from further plaguing mankind. He acts upon this responsibility by going on a quest to find and kill his creation, but ultimately fails to achieve his goal. However, recognizing that the responsibility remains and that it must be acted upon, he tells Walton that “The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed. When actuated by selfish and vicious motives, I asked you to undertake my unfinished work; and I renew this request now, when I am only induced by treason and virtue” (220). He is attempting to pass his responsibility on to another, not because he does not want to act upon it, but because he recognizes that doing so is the only way it will be completed.
It is clear that Frankenstein grows throughout the book from being entirely irresponsible, causing his creature to become corrupted and thus malicious, to being somewhat responsible, recognizing that he is bound to his creature and owes him the creation of a female, to being entirely responsible, recognizing that the creation of a female could bring even further consequences and harm to society and that the only proper course of action is seeking the destruction of his corrupted creation. Shelley has portrayed the varying levels of responsibility she sees as important in the scientist: responsibility to the creation and responsibility to society. If the scientist is able to uphold his responsibility throughout the scientific process and throughout his pursuit of knowledge then, as seen in the inherently neutral character of the creature and thus the inherently neutral nature of science, there is no reason to think that his creations will do harm. Had Frankenstein accepted his creature immediately and taken up the responsibilities Shelley believes a scientist should have, it is likely that his creature’s good nature would have been more pronounced than his bad nature, if that bad nature would be pronounced at all.
It must be noted, however, that despite Shelley’s message about the inherently neutral nature of science and knowledge she is not saying that science and knowledge can’t be dangerous. There is definitely an ambiguity to science, one which is developed out of the nature of mankind. Chris Baldick argues this point in his “In Frankenstein’s Shadow”, saying “knowledge is shown to be double-edged, its benefits and hazards depending upon the circumstances, and the spirit, in which it is pursued” (Baldick 45). Human society and scientists must be responsible with their creations and discoveries; if they are then the disastrous consequences seen in the events of “Frankenstein” won’t occur. Yet this does not mean that human society and scientists will be able to live up to this standard. Ultimately, there is a degree of human fallibility which makes this inherently neutral science become a tool for society to destroy, kill, and devastate. Indeed, Shelly recognizes this herself, demonstrating this by having the creature ask “was man, indeed at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” (114). She has argued that science and knowledge itself is neutral, but corrupted by human behavior; she also recognizes that human behavior is capable of being ‘vicious and base’, and thus entirely capable of corrupting science and knowledge. The danger therefore remains; Andrew Bartlett reinforces this in his “Frankenstein and Scientific Revelation”, saying that “the problem of modern science is that it makes mad science a real possibility” (Bartlett).
Baldick, Chris. “In Frankensteins Shadow”. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1987. Print.
Bartlett, Andrew. “Frankenstein and Scientific Revelation”. Anthropoetics 13.1 (2007) EBSCHOhost. Web. 10 April 2013.
Bloom, Abaigal. “The Literary Monster on Film”. North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 2010. Print.
Lowe-Evans, Mary. “Frankenstein: Mary Shelly’s Wedding Guest”. New York: Twayne Publishers. 1993. Print.
Northam, Paul. “Legacy of Frankenstein: The Monster is the One in the White Lab Coat” Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture 86.5. (1998): 479-480. JSTOR. Web. 3 April 2013.
Schoene-Harwood, Berthold. “Mary Shelly, Frankenstein”. New York: Columbia University Press. 2000. Print.
Shelly, Mary. “Frankenstein”. London: Penguin Classics. 2003. Print.
Tourney, Christopher. “The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science”. Science, Technology, and Human Values 17.4 (1992): 411-437. JSTOR. Web. 1 April2013.
Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Science, Frankenstein, and Myth”. The Sewanee Review 89.1 (1981):34-56. JSTOR. Web. 4 April 2013.