Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, considered by many to be one of the first science-fiction novels written, is rife with anti-Enlightenment undertones. Shelley's novel, first published in 1818 and republished in 1831, examines the roles of science and religion, and provides a commentary on the dangers of playing God. Considering that Mary Shelley was the daughter of two prominent Enlightenment intellectual figures, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, it can be argued that Shelley has an insight into the some of the beliefs and arguments of the Enlightenment and can provide a well thought out argument against the movement. Shelley's anti-Enlightenment attitude focuses on the dangers that may arise through unsupervised education, including the exploration of science and the denunciation or tampering of religion, and how it may impact an individual's perspectives and reasoning.
In Frankenstein, Shelley exploits the Victorian fears of scientific and technological advancements and innovations. Because much of these advancements and innovations are reflective of an individual's educational and personal background, Shelley explores how reason is developed -- and possibly overdeveloped and underdeveloped -- through one's upbringing. This concept is explored through the novel's three distinct narrators, Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and Frankenstein's Monster, or the Creature.
Walton's narrative, through epistolary framing of the novel, helps to establish a more ideal educational upbringing. When compared to Frankenstein's and the Creature's educational backgrounds, Walton's educational background is neither at one extreme or the other, but rather finds a balance between formal education and education that is acquired through experience. Walton states, "My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading" (Shelley 8). Unlike Frankenstein who had access to a wide range of books, the type of books that Walton had access to was severely limited; however, it is the types of books and the subject matter that leads Walton to pursue a sea-faring life, much like the subject matter of the books that Frankenstein had access to influenced his decisions. In his first letter to Mrs. Saville, Walton recalls the books that he grew up reading and writes,
You may remember, that a history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good uncle Thomas's library…These volumes were my study day and night, and my familiarity with them increased that regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father's dying injunction had forbidden my uncle to allow to embark in a sea-faring life. (8)
Despite Walton's great love for reading, he does admit that he wishes that there was someone that could help to set limitations and with whom he could bounce ideas off of. He confesses that "it is a still greater evil to me that I am self-educated" and that despite his interest and self-study of poetry and languages is "in reality more illiterate than many school-boys of fifteen" (10). Walton continues to state that "[it] is true that I have thought more and that my day dreams are more extended and magnificent; but they want…keeping" and he wishes that he had a friend "who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind" (10). While Walton does not realize it, he is aware of the fact that his "extended and magnificent" thoughts need to be reigned in and that without guidance, he is in danger of pursuing his interests and curiosities much to the consequence that is suffered by Frankenstein.
While Shelley recognizes that necessity of education, she also implies that one needs to have access to a formal education as well as a guide to help them determine limitations on the self. In the case of Walton, he admits that he has received no more education than a fifteen-year-old school boy and that his desire to learn has driven him to read as much as he can and rely on his own ambitions, yet he wants someone to guide him so that he can be more educated about the world and society, in general.
Frankenstein, on the other hand, falls to the extreme of being too educated and knowledgeable. Unlike Walton, Frankenstein has been afforded every opportunity to have a decent and thorough education, yet he does not exhibit any desire, prior to his experiment, to have someone that he can collaborate and discuss ideas with. It can be argued that Frankenstein and his family's doom lies in the neglect of educational guidance (Lipking 325). Lawrence Lipking, in "Frankenstein, the True Story," maintains that "[despite] Victor's many gifts and privileges, an arbitrary method of teaching has made him hunger for useless knowledge that poisons his soul" (325). Frankenstein uses what he has learned, both formally and informally, to help develop and further the questions that he has about science and natural philosophy. His unrelenting thirst for knowledge leads him to study "natural philosophers" such as Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. Frankenstein discloses that using these philosophers as guides, he "entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained [his] undivided attention…but what glory would attend the discovery, if [he] could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (Shelley 22).
Frankenstein appears to be following Immanuel Kant's Enlightenment philosophies through the pursuance of this goal. In his essay, Was ist Aufklarung? (What is Enlightenment, Kant writes,
Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!"- that is the motto of enlightenment. (Kant)
It is this split from "self-incurred tutelage" that allows Frankenstein to explore his desire to "render man invulnerable to any but a violent death" (Kant; Shelley 22). Releasing himself from his "self-incurred tutelage" strengthened Frankenstein's resolve and provided him with courage, albeit misplaced courage, to pursue his endeavor. Through his hard work, and the courage to use his reason "without direction from another," Frankenstein worked rigorously; "[a]fter days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, [he] succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, [he] became…capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (Shelley 30).
Additionally, the many philosophers of the Enlightenment also held that "it [was] possible for society to exist and in fact thrive without religious supervision -- however, not necessarily without religion" (Kreis). Moreover, what united many Enlightenment philosophers was their shedding of "inherited Christian beliefs with the aid of classical thinkers…and for the sake of modern philosophy" (Kreis). They argued that science and its predictability would lead to "truth, moral improvement, and happiness" (Kreis). This type of Enlightened thinking drives Frankenstein to pursue his ungodly experiments. With a complete disregard for Christianity, Frankenstein attempts to create life out of death and subsequently defies natural laws. While Enlightenment philosophers may have argued that science led to "truth, moral improvement, and happiness," it is clear that Frankenstein's experimentation, while being a scientific and medical marvel, had unpredictable results and consequences. Furthermore, while it provided some unwanted truths and improved Frankenstein's morals -- he recognizes that what he has done is wrong, refuses to build his monster a mate, and ultimately seeks to destroy his creation -- it deprived him of any happiness he may have ever had as the Creature, and to an extent Frankenstein, is responsible for the murders of William, Elizabeth, and Henry Clerval, Frankenstein's brother, wife, and friend respectively; moreover, Frankenstein is responsible for Justine's, the family's servant, death as she is accused of killing William and subsequently sentenced to be executed.
As opposed to both Walton and Frankenstein, the Creature does not have any formal education and has had to rely on himself to understand the natural world, society, and his function as a member of the world and society which he inhabits. Unlike Walton and Frankenstein who have some sort of structured education, the Creature is forced to teach himself how the world functions through reading various books, observing how others act and interact, and through his own experiences. Enlightenment philosopher John Lock suggested that experience was the foundation of all knowledge (Kreis). Locke wrote, in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that "[o]ur observation employed either, about external sensible objects or about internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected upon by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking" (Kreis). Locke continues to state that "[t]hese two are the foundations of all knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or natural have, do spring" (Kreis). However, the Creature's psychological and social formations cannot rely solely on experience. He is not part of the world and society and cannot ever hope to be…
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