He tells Walton he was "surprised that among so many men of genius . . . that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret" (37). Here Shelley illuminates the weakness of man with Frankenstein's inability to control himself in this situation. Shelley placed Frankenstein in this environment because he represented "modern scientist is search of the spark to animate lifeless matter" (Wright 14). Like Prometheus, he is penalized for "meddling in the work of the gods" (14). Shelley foreshadows the mood of the novel when she writes, "Frightful it must be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" (Shelley xxv). Here Shelley is making a stand against certain aspects of knowledge. While knowledge itself is not bad, the desire for knowledge to do great things for the sake of fame or ambition is. Houghton writes, after Darwin, many "liberal" (Houghton 34) minds were "fired by the vision of a life spent in contributing, no matter how little, to the great revelation of all knowledge" (34). This included more than an intellectual endeavor. It also included the "practical elimination of physical suffering through medicine, and even of moral evil through the new science of sociology" (34). Frankenstein discovers the secret and he discovers the evil. The most incredible thing about the man and the monster is that the monster is more compassionate than the man is. With this comparison, Shelley is proving the frightful effects of a human endeavor to imitate God, or a divine creator.
Frankenstein is a fascinating novel but it becomes even more so when we look at it in context. It represents an era tantalized with the notion of knowing more. Shelley allows two fates in the novel: that of Frankenstein and Walton. The men are similar in characteristics but their massages could not be farther apart. In fact, Shelley's message is palpable. Walton had the sense to recognize something fierce and frightening in Frankenstein and when faced with a hopeless situation, he chose to return to the life he knew rather than forge ahead into a world unknown. Frankenstein, on the other hand, fell victim to the fame attached to his endeavor. In short, he did everything wrong. While Frankenstein was not wrong with his initial curiosity, he becomes obsessed. The truth of the matter is that he cannot handle the consequences of his actions. Sadly, he is human and demonstrates the frailty of man in that he does not always make the right decision despite his intentions. Shelley was taking part in conversations about the origins of life; she was taking part in speculation about the mysteries of life. Her hero fails on many fronts but he succeeds at being human. He could be any man obsessed with a dream in any century. He states he deprives himself of "rest and health, I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream had vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart" (42). This statement encapsulates Frankenstein's life. He was like a comet; burning bright for a short while only to fall to the earth, cold and dead. He could not face the truth of what happened. The truth was ugly and this was something Frankenstein had not considered. He was human because he did not consider the unintended consequences of his actions. He was selfish because once he was faced with those consequences, he ran from them because they did not fit into his ideal image. This is the moral lesson Shelley conveys in the novel. While mankind thrives and, sometimes, depends upon on discovery and knowledge, some things are better off left unknown or left in the hands of a divine creator. Walton was wise enough to realize the truth behinds Frankenstein's words. He saw what Frankenstein refused to see: a future without the fame he believed in. he surrendered it to the ice that may have been keeping him from a similar fate. Shelley allows us to see the ramifications of our actions with Frankenstein but she also allows us to see that we are not fated to ruin our lives if we listen to logic.
Garrett, Martin. Mary Shelley. New York. Oxford University Press. 2002.