In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s life story is the heart of the tale. As a young Swiss boy, he grew up in Geneva reading the works of the ancient and outdated alchemists, a background that serves him ill when he attends university at Ingolstadt. There he learns about modern science and, within a few years, masters all that his professors have to teach him. He becomes fascinated with the “secret of life,” discovers it, and brings a hideous monster into the world.
The monster proceeds to kill Victor’s youngest brother, best friend, and wife; he also indirectly causes the deaths of two other innocents, including Victor’s father. Though torn by remorse, shame, and guilt, Victor refuses to admit to anyone the horror of what he has created, even as he sees the ramifications of his experiment spiraling out of control. This paper focuses on the God-like sciences that are portrayed in the novel. “Learn from me. . . t 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” (Shelley 101). Victor’s attempt to play God and Creator is most plainly seen through the perceptions and actions of his creation. The creature is born into the world as if it is a baby, knowing nothing of life. This creature’s first experience as a living existence is being shunned by its own creator.
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 He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs (Shelley 43). The monster is reaching out to the only thing he knows thus far, his creator, and is met with disgust. Victor, being merely human, cannot offer this creature the unconditional love and guidance that God bestows on His creatures.
This, in turn, leads to the imminent immoral actions of the creature. As technology advances, civilization grows farther from religious beliefs, attempting to become God-like’. Instead of living off what is here, humans build their own habitats. Instead of accepting disease and death, humans discover medical miracles to cure ailments and prolong life. This trend leads people to believe they no longer need a God, because they can do what ever they want for themselves.
At the time the novel was written, England was on the brink of leading the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The experiments of Huntsman (crucible steel manufacture), Newcome (steam-powered pumps), and Cochrane (coal tar production) throughout the eighteenth century in England were decisive in the initial transformation of England into an industrialized country (Brooks 137, 173, 195). The monster enacts in turn the roles of Adam and Satan, and even eventually hints at a sort of digression into the role of God.
Like Adam, he recalls a time of primordial innocence, his days and nights in “the forest near Ingolstadt,” where he ate berries, learned about heat and cold, and perceived “the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me” (Shelley 88). Almost too quickly, however, he metamorphoses into an outcast and Satanic figure, hiding in a shepherd’s hut which seems to him “as exquisite . . . a retreat as Pandemonium . . . after . . . the lake of fire” (Shelley 90). Eventually, burning the cottage and murdering William in demonic rage, he seems to become entirely satanic: “I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me” (Shelley 121).
At the same time, in his assertion of power over his “author,” his mental conception of another creature, a female monster, and his implicit dream of founding a new, vegetarian race somewhere in “the vast wilds of South America,” (Shelley 131), he temporarily enacts the part of a God, a creator, a master, albeit a failed one. [Gilbert and Gubar, 235-236] This goes to the issue of the scientist as villain, as Issac Asimov puts it. Asimov says that Victor Frankenstein is the prototype of the mad scientist who invades on those things not meant for man to know, because, presumably they are reserved for God alone.
What lies behind Victor Frankenstein’s scientific projects is obviously an attempt to gain power. Frankenstein is inspired by the new scientists who acquired almost unlimited power. Frankenstein has sought this power to the extent of taking the place of God in reaction to his creation. In doing so, Frankenstein has not only disrupted nature, but also seized the power of reproduction in order to become acknowledged. This ambition is very close to capitalism (to exploit natures resources for both commercial profit and political control).
This is a goal of what many of today’s scientists are out to accomplish. “Frankenstein,” Asimov remarks “dared usurp what was considered the divine choice of giving life and . . . paid dearly in consequence. The subtle irony of the book is of course that Frankenstein is not portrayed as a villainous character. He is actually, a tragic hero: he meant well” (Asimov 66). The moral dilemma created by progress that outgrows its creator and develops as it were a life of its own is identified in Frankenstein. Robert Spector sees this as a concern of Shelley’s.
Frankenstein, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a monster story, was a warning against man’s domination by the machines he was creating. The evil is not inherent in the monster, but is a result of the attitude toward it (Spector 12). Spector felt that Shelley was proving the danger of building intelligent “life” that is not human, is in fact a way of destroying humanity. Education is the key to freedom, this is why dictators historically withheld education from the oppressed members of their society.
Her long passages describing the education of the monster have often been criticized as sentimental nonsense, but they were essential to her point of view. If what the monster learns about humanitarian principles comes only from book, it merely increased his wrath to discover their perversion in practice (Spector 10). Shelley questioned the morals of the advancing technologies. She saw the consequences that all the advances might cause. On this view, the novel is a cautionary tale about what is to come.
Shelley’s tale of horror is a profound insight of the consequences of morally insensitive scientific and technological research. God-like sciences are tomorrows norm, but should be feared by all of humanity. Frankenstein’s monster killed many people, advertently as well as inadvertently, but perhaps the poetic justice of Victor Frankenstein’s death was the loudest message of all: By advancing technology so much that we no longer require divine intervention, or even the belief of a deity, we are doing nothing more than committing mass suicide.