Essay on Playing God in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
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What differentiates Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein from the majority of horror novels are the very real and timeless themes it explores. The overriding theme of the novel - scientific investigation without consideration of morality and responsibility is still an important topic in today’s world. “Perhaps the reality of cloning and genetic engineering makes this theme more relevant today than when Frankenstein was first published”(Patterson). This theme, along with the more subtle themes of revenge, the inability to accept those who are different, and the inability to control one's destiny are all themes which separate Frankenstein from other novels in the genre.
Victor Frankenstein had a normal, if not…show more content…
His father then explained it to him - electricity. Victor's interest was again sparked, this time literally. Victor turned seventeen and went to attend the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, studying Natural Philosophy. At Ingolstadt, Victor met with a professor who said, "The ancient teachers of this science promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters ... have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows."(Shelley) This quote, which could indeed be interpreted as man "playing god", very much intrigued Victor. He was fascinated - spending every waking moment in the presence of his professors and his science. Victor read and absorbed as much information as he possibly could.
The major turning point of the novel then begins; Victor endeavors to create a human being. If he would have been unsuccessful, the novel would have ended, but the question of whether it was moral to even attempt to create life would have still remained. Thus, the single most important and overriding theme in the novel begins - morality versus scientific discovery. “Questions of morality did not enter Victor's mind a single time before the creation of his human being."(Botting 112) He did not ponder the effects of his creation. Victor had a goal - to create life. By doing so
I felt the greatest eagerness to hear the promised narrative, partly from curiosity, and partly from a strong desire to ameliorate his fate, if it were in my power. I expressed these feelings in my answer.
"I thank you," he replied, "for your sympathy, but it is useless; my fate is nearly fulfilled. I wait but for one event, and then I shall repose in peace. I understand your feeling," continued he, perceiving that I wished to interrupt him; "but you are mistaken, my friend, if thus you will allow me to name you; nothing can alter my destiny listen to my history, and you will perceive how irrevocably it is determined."Preface, Letter 6
In this passage, Frankenstein conveys to Walton the belief that the course of his life -- his fate -- is bound to the monster he created. In this way, he has been enslaved by his own creation because his one goal in life has become to destroy it.
No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed. When I mingled with other families, I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was, and gratitude assisted the development of filial love.Volume I, Chapter 2
What's interesting to note, which Frankenstein highlights here, is that he had a childhood characterized by loving, caring, present parents. This contrasts directly with Frankenstein's prompt abandonment of his monster, following its creation.
Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate; I desire, therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to my predilection for that science. When I was thirteen years of age, we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon: the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate, and the wonderful facts which he relates, soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind; and, bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book, and said, "Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash."
If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced, which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical; under such circumstances, I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside, and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents; and I continued to read with the greatest avidity.Volume I, Chapter 2
Here, Victor claims that he never would have gone down the road that ultimately led to the creation of the monster if his father had responded differently to his interest in alchemy. In this way, one might say that Victor's father turned him 'into a monster', just as Victor created a monster all his own.
"The ancient teachers of this science," said he, "promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows."
Such were the professor's words--rather let me say such the words of fate, enounced to destroy me. As he went on, I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being: chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein--more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.Volume 1, Chapter 3
The reaction of Frankenstein's first professor to his interest in alchemy, similar to his father's reaction, only spurs him on in pursuit of the path that will ultimately lead to creating the monster. Note the language of fate: throughout the novel, Frankenstein describes the tragic events of his life as a course that was determined for him. He attributes little-to-no agency to himself.
Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.Volume I, Chapter 4
Frankenstein's language prefacing the creation of his monster underscores the text's preoccupation with proof and verification: he is invested in convincing the reader that the events he describes are both true and scientifically tenable.
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 is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.Volume I, Chapter 4
The reserved nature which Frankenstein has about conveying the actual mechanism by which he created the monster does two things: it establishes a degree of narrative unreliability because we know that he is intentionally withholding information from Walton; it is also somewhat ironic that he is withholding the scientific mechanism, given his preoccupation with substantiating the claims of his story.
But I forget that I am moralising in the most interesting part of my tale; and your looks remind me to proceed.Volume I, Chapter 4
This brief comment after Frankenstein digresses on the context within which he created his monster is rather telling of the narrative as an overall piece: part of the game in Frankenstein is for the reader to absorb the events and decide on the moral implications for herself.
I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.Volume 1, Chapter 5
Note that in the one brief moment shared between the creator and the created before Frankenstein flees, the monster smiles at him. This lends credibility to the argument that Frankenstein was prejudiced against the monster from his very inception, and spurned him where he might otherwise have raised him to be a reasonably well-adjusted being.
"I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings that sometimes raised me to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection."Volume II, Chapter 7
The monster says this in describing the three books with which he learned how to read -- Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Sorrows of Werter. It relates the monster to both the novel as a whole, and to Frankenstein: Frankenstein also formulated much of his identity from books in his youth; and the whole as a home is largely structured by allusions and excerpts from other, earlier texts.
"You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured, wasting in impotent passions. For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were for ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal when all human kind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice.
"But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept, and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin. There he lies, white and cold in death. You hate me; but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself. I look on the hands which executed the deed; I think on the heart in which the imagination of it was conceived, and long for the moment when these hands will meet my eyes, when that imagination will haunt my thoughts no more."Volume III, Chapter 7
This is part of the monster's final monologue to Walton, after Frankenstein has died on the ship. Note that the monster has not actually found any sense of justice in spite of taking revenge: the only one who could make him happy was Frankenstein, by making him a mate -- something that he refused to do. He also agrees to what Frankenstein has said all along: because of his actions, he is 'a wretch'. However, it is important to note that he thinks he is a wretch because of the actions he took in seeking revenge against Frankenstein. So, it seems that he only became a wretch in response to Frankenstein rejecting him and calling him a wretch -- making it something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.