Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dangerous Knowledge


“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 be greater than his nature will allow.”  - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

A Fantastic Story.
Fantastic, filled with both vivid emotions and exciting action, Mary Shelley's story of the haunted Victor Frankenstein, and his creation who does the haunting, still stirs the soul. Just as Goethe's Faust sought the secrets of arcane knowledge, Victor Frankenstein engages in the secrets of both licit and illicit science to bring a being to life. Once this is accomplished he immediately rues his action and spends the rest of the novel trying through a variety of means to atone for his mistake.
The novel is a classic tale of the uncanny which, according to the novelist and critic David Lodge, invariably use "I" narrators, imitating documentary forms of discourse like confessions, letters and depositions to make events more credible. Beginning with letters from Robert Walton, whose own search for the source of the magnetic north pole mirrors Victor Frankenstein's quest, the first book of the novel relates Victor Frankenstein's narrative of his youth and education.  It surely was more than coincidental that Victor attended University at Ingolstad which was heralded as the original site of the Faust legends that Goethe adapted for his immensely influential drama.

'Monster' or 'Creature'?
The center of the novel continues Victor's story and that of his creation, the monster.  At least that is what he calls his creation.  While it is monstrous in the sense that it is larger than normal human size it is a creature made of human parts and, we find after some intervening events in Victor's life that the creature has some very human traits like the need for companionship -- one that is not met by his creator.  Victor's emotions seem to swing from the the heights of elation to the depths of despair coloring his actions and clouding his reason;  in fact he is very much a loner, seemingly recusing himself from society, first at Ingolstad and later as he roams Switzerland.   I found the monster's narration to be the most persuasive of the two. He pleads with Victor, " Remember, that I am thy creature:  I ought to be thy Adam;  but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed."(p 66)  Victor  is unable to satisfy him and the monster who searches for acceptance throughout attempts to exert power over his creator as he tells him, "You are my creator, but I am your master; -obey!"(p 116) His words and actions only serve to speed the descent of Victor.
I saw the monster as a classic example of  "the other", a precursor to modern images much as those found in Kafka.  The action builds effectively through the third book of the novel building suspense and leading to an ending that involves a triangle of relationships between Victor, the creature, and Robert Walton whose narrative in letters bookends the tale. The power of the book, however, remains in the questions it raises; questions that we are dealing with to this day.

“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.”  ― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

2012 Sci-Fi Challenge for July
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Norton Critical Edition, 1996 (1918)


Amy said...

I first read Frankenstein at a very impressionable age, and found it heartbreaking--a creation hated by its creator/parent/god. I reread it recently (30-odd years later) and this time was more interested in the question it raises about science: because something *can* be done, does that mean it *should* be done? As you say, so very relevant even 200 years after it was written.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I share your interest in the scientific aspect of the tale that contributes to its continuing relevance.