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Shelley’s Frankenstein

Dec 20, 2019 at Literature Essays

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Analysis of Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was born into a family of a stalwart feminist Mary Wollstonecarft and a liberal philosopher William Goldwin. The family spent much time conversing about the latest developments of the previous century. It should also be noted that the girl had not even attained the age of majority before she eloped with her betrothed, Percy Shelley. The couple communicated with the leading thinkers of that time such as Lord Byron. Influenced by conversations about galvanization, i.e. electromechanical animation of dead matter, Mary decided to write a story about a man-made from a patchwork of body parts. Finally, after three years of’ lucubration, she produced Frankenstein. It is interesting that such transcendental ideas were gradually receding into the background at that time as the Age of Enlightenment continued to reign supreme over many spheres of public life. Since the Enlightenment was a byword for rationalism, this cultural movement of intellectuals sent the philosophers scurrying to justify the supremacy of the human mind and what Kant called “pure reason.” Thus, the spirit of the human mind tried to insinuate itself into the 19th-century literature. However, Mary Shelley did not bestir herself to subscribe to the ideas of that time and it is uncannily eerie how unusual for the Age of Enlightenment her beliefs were. Judging by the highest standards, Frankenstein critiques the Enlightenment idea that scientific knowledge was a short-term solution to the chronic malaise and other woes of society. In other words, Shelley believes that emotions, beauty, and nature rather than pure reason constitute a guide to actions.

Victor Frankenstein, the main protagonist of the novel, aspired to cognize the world and showed no compunction in carrying out his devious plans. Victor realized the enormity of his mistake only when he created a monster. It does not fall within the remit of this paper, but still, it should be mentioned for better understanding that Victor repeatedly referred to his creation as a wretch (Shelley, 2008, p. 46), a monster (p. 48), a vile insect (p. 78), a demon (p. 157), a fiend (p. 163), etc. This clearly demonstrates that Victor had scruples about crossing ethical boundaries though it was a little too late. By this time, the monster had begun to apprehend itself and saddled Victor with the responsibility for its existence. Even though Frankenstein essayed to rely on pure reason and scientific logic, he and his creature constituted a gnostic pair guided by nature and their own emotions. The pair also illustrated the futility of human attempts to undertake the functions of God or rather the inability of humans to apprehend God through the instrumentality of pure reason. This conclusion can be further corroborated by the ruminations of Immanuel Kant. Explaining the architectonic of pure reason, Kant (1855) argued:

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Transcendent psychology has, again, an internal and an external connection with its object, both, however, transcending possible experience; the former is the psychology f nature as a whole or transcendental cognition of the world, the latter of the connection of the whole of nature with a being above nature, or transcendental cognition of God. (p. 511)

However, if one considered this situation in the original Enlightenment terms, it would transform into a problem of a scientists’ ethical responsibilities for their discoveries. Similar elements of rationalism enter largely into the composition of the novel, but they are used primarily to emphasize the predominance of emotions in determining human behavior.

In the ebb and flow of events on the European continent in the late 18th century, many Enlightenment ideas were consigned to oblivion. It was at this time that romanticism, which was originally conceived as a response to the collapse of the concepts of reason, sprang into existence. The new ideological current implied a deep distrust of pure reason and a mystic perception of the world. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Frankenstein is permeated with ideas of romanticism. For instance, Victor adumbrated his vision of scientific knowledge in Romantic terms:

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A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion to a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, then that study is certainly unlawful, i.e. not befitting the human mind. (Shelley, 2008, pp. 43-44)

All in all, Shelley’s book is premised on romantic values and ideals that run counter to those of the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas representatives of the Enlightenment believed that God’s mind could be revealed through scientific methods, Shelley sought to demonstrate that God’s mind manifested itself only through human senses, such as love and emotion, and was bereft of reason. Similarly, it would not be folly to state that Shelley tried to infer that too much knowledge corroded the underpinnings of the natural world (Shelley, 2008, p. 95). Frankenstein may also be seen as Shelley’s animadversion of the well-established belief that man was inherently bad. Once again, Shelley showed her penchant for the ideas of romanticism when she concurred with the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The latter argued that “man is inherently good and rational thought and its associated progress such as in natural science or social progress is corrupting” (cited in Robertson & Walter, 2013, p. 41). Although she did not cite these words directly, the reader can make all the necessary conclusions single-handedly. Similarly, Shelley elevated every success of the gnostic pair in comprehending their true essence to the sublime.

On the first pages of the book, Shelley portrays Victor Frankenstein as a consummate rationalist, whose crusade for knowledge was spawned by the lack of care and attention on the part of his parents. The fiend experienced similar feelings of neglect and emptiness and, thus, sought enlightenment. However, before drawing any parallels between these two instances, it would be wise to make a brief “lyrical” digression. Obereit argued, “Kant’s philosophy was the epitome of rationalism because it had taken criticism to its ultimate limits” (cited in Beiser, 2012, p. 27). He also agreed with Kant’s belief that ultimate values and beliefs have no rational basis (cited in Beiser, 2012, p. 28). It would make analytical sense to project these findings onto the case of Victor Frankenstein and his creature because they both were to some extent living embodiments of rationalism. However, the irresponsibility of Victor’s sire in respect of his son and, later, Victor’s own disregard of the monster caused abnormal behavior in both of them. Subsequently, there are ample grounds to conclude that feelings of deep despair and isolation had irrevocably altered the gnostic pair’s psyche. Similarly, their natural desire to give vent to pent-up feelings and emotions was the main driving force behind their propensity for vengeful actions. This is a testament to the assumption that ultimate values have no rational basis.

Mary Shelley started working on Frankenstein at the epoch when reason, a harbinger of modern science, started breaking away from its traditional world-representing role and moved toward the world-making one. As the 19th century unfolded, rationalists harnessed their creativity at an exponential pace. In Shelley’s book, Victor Frankenstein stands as one of the most creative rationalists of his time. However, the fact that the product of Victor’s reason threatened itself with success should be interpreted as Shelley’s critique of human reason. Certainly, emotions warp human judgment, but it is human nature to obey the first propulsion of passion.

Summary

At the time when Mary Shelley started writing her book, the Age of Enlightenment was drawing to a close; however, the set of its convictions continued to resonate. Shelley’s book, Frankenstein, critiques the Enlightenment idea that scientific knowledge could heal chronic illnesses of society. In other words, Shelley believed that natural emotions rather than pure reason constituted a guide to actions. Victor Frankenstein, the main protagonist of the novel, aspired to cognize the world and had no qualms about carrying out his devious plans. By the time the first scruples percolated through Victor’s mind, his monstrous creature had already begun to apprehend itself. Even though Frankenstein essayed to rely on pure reason and scientific logic, he in fact acted under the pressure of childhood grievances, thereby imbuing his creature with resentful emotions. Ultimately, the monster took so much umbrage at its sire that it started to seek vengeance upon him. The interrelationship between Victor and his creature also illustrates the forlornness of human attempts to take on the functions of God or rather the inability of humans to apprehend God by means of pure reason.

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Elements of rationalism enter largely into the composition of the novel, but they are used primarily to emphasize the predominance of emotions in determining human behavior. At the same time, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Frankenstein is permeated with Romantic ideas. By using them, Shelley tried to imply that science together with pure reason threatened to shake the foundations of the natural world. One of the most salient features of Shelley’s book is that subjects broached up by the author can be further corroborated by the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. When getting back to the composition of the book, it should be mentioned that the lack of attention on the part of progenitors, rather than anything else, caused abnormal behavior in Victor and later, in his creature. This means that the pair guided themselves by the overwhelming emotions and not the reason

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