Dominance of Humanity over Nature: Conflict and Change in 19th Century Human Society in the Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein (1818), had introduced in literature a new genre and theme where human society and nature experiences conflict over time. The novel primarily depicts the state of humanity in the 19th century, where the effects of the Enlightenment period are reinforced through the study of the natural sciences (biology, physics, and chemistry, among others) and predominance of empirical thought, i.e., human knowledge acquired through experience and obtained through the scientific method.
With these state of events and forces dominating 19th century human society, this paper's analysis of the novel Frankenstein is two-fold: one facet discusses the issue of conflict and change happening in human society during the period, and the other facet looking into the dynamics of these changes, through exemplars and cases illustrated in the novel. However, despite this two-fold analysis, one recurring and dominant theme is inherent in the discussion and analysis, and this is the theme of humanity vs. nature, and how this conflict affects the development of science and state of humanity in the novel Frankenstein. Specifically, this paper posits that Frankenstein serves as a chronicle of human history, where science (supported by humanity) dominated over nature, thereby causing changes and conflicts that helped shape and improve modern societies of today.
Discussing the theme of conflict between humanity and nature necessitates a clarification of how the former is differentiated from the latter in the novel. Although humanity is part of nature, its role in the novel is antagonistic: as human society acquired knowledge to better its state and living conditions, nature, its creator, suffered the effects of humanity's inventions and innovations. This situation is an analogy to Shelley's creation of conflict between Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist, and the Monster / Daemon / Devil, who is considered the creature who made possible Frankenstein's demise and downfall. Frankenstein, the creator who subsists to science, and the Monster, who is a product of science, turned against each other in the novel. This conflict between the two main characters shows that, just as humanity turned against its own (nature), science, as Shelley envisioned, also turned against itself, destroying humanity (its creator) in the process.
The novel's symbolic representation of the conflict between creator (nature and Frankenstein) and creation (humanity and Monster) gave birth to the theme of humanity vs. nature in the novel. The theme of humanity vs. nature has different readings, or perspectives, in current literature about the novel. One popular notion that the theme elucidates is the argument that Frankenstein is basically a novel about change, promoting and stunting it at the same time. St. Claire (2000) expounds on this premise, arguing that the novel "... would contribute, in its small way, to the general intellectual and moral improvement of society in its slow, much interrupted, but cumulative progress towards perfection" (41).
The concepts of "intellectual and moral improvement" and "progress" are strongly tied to the study of science. As a new philosophy, science equates intellectual and moral improvement by encouraging objectivity among people, which can be attained through empiricism and the scientific method. Consequently, scientific philosophy also believes and promises humanity that with intellectual and moral development comes social progress, improving human society. In effect, science is considered constructive and advantageous for humanity, a direct contrast to nature, which is conceived as static and does not hold the promise of social progress advocated for by scientific philosophers.
Does science indeed promise humanity both moral and intellectual development and social progress? Looking into Shelley's illustration of conflict and change in the novel, this question is not answered, but instead compromised as the author presents the positive and detrimental effects of science to nature. Frankenstein considers humanity's pursuit for knowledge through the natural sciences as constructive, but this positive aspect can only go far as improve inventions and materials significant to progress and development. Primarily, the novel illustrates the concept of change as synonymous with conflict, illustrated by the Frankenstein's realization of science as the "unhallowed arts" and worsening of his own state of affairs as he successfully created the Monster (Shelley, 1994:60).
The death of William and Justine served as foreshadowing of the downfall and demise in the life of Frankenstein. Both William and Justine are 'indirect victims' of Frankenstein through his creation, the Monster. Frankenstein's reference to both characters as "first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts" provides the readers an idea to the development of the novel, wherein more similar instances of human deaths and sufferings are illustrated (60).
Even the Monster, as a product of science, feels and in fact, embodies, the detrimental effect of science, which results to the disintegration and eventual 'objectification' of human society. This means that as science makes human life developed and progressive, society becomes more segmented, preferring their own pursuit of knowledge rather than value human relationship and interaction. The Monster expressed his desire for human interaction, asserting that despite his hideous appearance, "my (his) soul glowed with love and humanity." And as a result of humanity's reproachful treatment of the Monster, "they shall share my wretchedness," causing conflict as the Monster endeavored to find his own place in human society, despite his difference from it (69).
Another insight that the novel shares in discussing the detrimental effect of science against nature is the worsening of human progress. When the Monster stated, "You have made me wretched beyond expression. You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you, or not" (70). Since science is objectified, it goes without saying that its products are objectified as well. Thus, when the Monster was created, Frankenstein was not able to consider the responsibility that comes with its creation; thus, he never though of his creation as a rational, thinking individual, but only as a product of science, a creation that can be manipulated with.
This poses a vital discussion and domain of the conflict between science and nature. Frankenstein reveals and addresses issues of ethics and morality that inevitably results because science has crossed the boundary limiting its experiments and inventions to material and inanimate objects alone. Frankenstein, as a scientist, crossed this boundary, meddling with nature and playing 'god' by creating another human being, in the character of the Monster. Science, in effect, is more of a detriment than a constructive change in human society, since, despite its promotion of intellectual development, it puts in great peril moral development among humans. Furthermore, it curtails social progress, as more people, like Frankenstein, prefer the pursuit for knowledge rather than social interaction and relations.
The assertion stated above is substantiated by exemplars that highlight how science, as the dominant philosophy and ideology of 19th century society, led to downplaying of vital human skills and talents, such as the inherent talent of individuals to create and re-create their social realities through the arts and enrichment of human knowledge by pure reason alone. The precursors to the changes and effects of science discussed in the first part of the analysis are then the continuing conflict between science and nature. These are illustrated through the novel's depiction of conflict between the following elements: science vs. human reason and the arts.
The science-nature conflict is seen through the character of the Monster, who represents science, since he is a product of science, and nature, since he was created in the likeness of human beings. As a product of science, he expressed "hatred and vengeance to all mankind"; however, as a creature with the likeness of humanity (which is a part of nature), he also felt rage against science, embodied by Victor Frankenstein, his creator (101). The Monster illustrates the overlapping of conflict between science and nature, as well as humanity, an element of nature, against nature itself.
Pure human reason -- that is, human knowledge attained through mental contemplation and not experimentation and experience -- became the scrutiny of the novel, as Frankenstein was influenced with the thinking that science attained what humanity did not -- that is, progress through intellectual development. This is exemplified by Waldman's argument, saying, "[t]he modern masters promise very little... But these philosophers... have indeed performed miracles... They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers" (27). Debunking the belief that knowledge is inherent among humans, science destroyed the belief that knowledge can be found and obtained within the nature of humanity. It instead put in place the new belief that the human minds is a blank slate, where knowledge is acquired through experience and furthered by objectifying humanity's social realities.
Parallel with the discrediting of innate human knowledge, science has also scorned the expression of human thoughts and feelings by creating works of art. The arts contrast directly against the science because the arts breaks the credo of objectivity adhered to by the latter. The arts are considered non-scientific since it is subjective, with the inclusion of expression of…