Frankenstein (1818) is a multi-genre novel by Mary Shelley (1797-1851). It contains themes of Gothic and science fiction, among others. This essay will be focusing on the latter theme of science in Shelley’s novel.
Prior to the ill-fated construction of his Monster, Victor Frankenstein gloried in the sciences. He described himself “as always having been embued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (Shelley, 1987, p. 30). Yet, upon the climax of his endeavours, he is filled with the utmost dread and hatred of science, describing the products of his labour as a “catastrophe” (Shelley, 1987, p. 51). This essay seeks to contextualise the passage where Frankenstein’s ardour turned to pain and his Monster was unleashed on the world. The scene itself is located between pages 51 to 54 of Chapter 5, where Frankenstein finally completes the creation of the Monster.
This will be accomplished through an analysis of the transition of Frankenstein’s view of science, the role of science as Frankenstein’s downfall, the relationship between science and alchemy in the novel and, finally, an examination of science as supplanting nature and God.
This essay will show how Frankenstein outlines the capacity for science (and knowledge) to harm humanity, through the corruption of it and attempts to subvert the natural order.
Frankenstein transitioned from a passionate scientist to lamenting his perceived sins almost as soon as he had finished creating the Monster. Within the passage itself, however, Frankenstein’s mood towards his project is already negative. Pathetic fallacy, such as the ‘dreary night’, ‘rain pattered dismally’ and ‘burnt out candle’ (Shelley, 1987, p. 51), is used to set the mood, symbolise Frankenstein’s emotional state and, perhaps, foreshadow the results of the project. Frankenstein did not expect his project to end so dismally, however, as despite his mood, he believed that the results of his science “would then drive away incipient disease” and leave him in much higher spirits (Shelley, 1987, p. 50).
As well as a foreshadowing of the Monster, the pathetic fallacy provides contrast with Frankenstein’s earlier passion as he had earlier described himself as a passionate proponent of science. He felt “exquisite pleasure dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted [his] mind” (Shelley, 1987, p. 29). These recollections were not only of his family relations and growing up, but also of his pursuit of knowledge. While his forays into alchemy were not productive scientifically, he saw it as developing his lust for knowledge, reporting that “…they [the alchemical texts] appeared to me treasures known to few beside myself” (Shelley, 1987, p. 30). This lust for knowledge as a means for Frankenstein’s downfall will be explored in the final section.
Through the creation of the Monster, however, Frankenstein (by exhaustion or wisdom) came to an epiphany – that his creation was, in his words, a “catastrophe” (Shelley, 1987, p. 51). “…the beauty of the dream vanished” as Frankenstein realised the results of his labour (Shelley, 1987, p. 51).
The description of the Monster as a “horrid contrast” is a useful description of Frankenstein’s view of science before and after the Monster’s creation (Shelley, 1987, p. 51). If Frankenstein is to be viewed as a semi-tragedy, this scene shows the hamartia (downfall), where not only does the skilled scientist err from his virtuous path, but also create the means to his own destruction.
The creation of the Monster sees a shift in Frankenstein’s view of science, from a wondrous pursuit of natural truths to a tool for evil. While this view may be seen as true, as Frankenstein did indeed utilise science to create the Monster, it is not the fundamental nature of science that led him to this result, but rather a corruption of it. When first converted from alchemy to science, Frankenstein laments that he “was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth” (Shelley, 1987, p. 39). Frankenstein was not content with the merely investigative nature of science, but lectures on the virtues of science soon changed his mind, as his Professor stated that “these philosophers [scientists], whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles” (Shelley, 1987, p. 40).
The nature of alchemy, Frankenstein’s previous vocation, was to change or circumvent the natural order, unlike science which is to discover its nature. In this regard, Frankenstein’s efforts to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing” is not so much a product of science but of alchemy (Shelley, 1987, p. 51). While this may excuse science as merely a scapegoat for his own capriciousness, the fact that science does lead to horrors indicates that it is culpable in some respects. While reviving the dead may seem more in the realms of magic than science, Mary Shelley does appear to portray it as science. In this regard, the reader should consider the material as the writer intended – that science led to the creation of the Monster.
The nature of the Monster is so horrifying to his creator that he “rushed out of the room”, “unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created” (Shelley, 1987, p. 52). This may have partly been due to the hideousness of the Monster, which he described with a myriad of unpleasant descriptions upon its completion, but also as a result of the fact that he had worked on the creature for “nearly two years” (Shelley, 1987, p. 51). This would have caused him to be vastly disappointed. Thus, his reason for running was not only to escape the vile visage, but also to shun his own failure. Throughout the novel itself, Frankenstein refers to the Monster as fiend and demon, alienating it from society but also perhaps from his own creation. Even then, he does acknowledge that he “had so miserably given life” to the creature (Shelley, 1987, p. 52).
Science as a tool for creating ‘monsters’ is not reserved for fantasy or science fiction. James B. Conant (1988), when commenting on the invention of the hydrogen bomb, said that: “We built one Frankenstein” (Kroeber, 1988, p. 20). There are similar reactions to Frankenstein and the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, where both experience a confusion of emotions and despair. First, in Frankenstein’s foreshadowing dream of his kiss murdering Elizabeth, as her lips “became livid with the hue of death” (Shelley, 1987, p. 52), and then in Oppenheimer (1965) who stated his feelings on his creation of the atomic bomb:
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” (Oppenheimer, 1965)
Both the scientists (embodied collectively as the creators of the atomic bomb) and Frankenstein experienced a confusion of emotions. What arose in both was a deep sense of disappointment that their creations did not meet the hoped “miracle” that Frankenstein’s professor had spoken so passionately about (Shelley, 1987, p. 40), but rather a forewarning of the destruction their creation would cause upon the world.
Science in Frankenstein takes two forms. The first is the mere recognition for “realities of little worth” (Shelley, 1987, p. 39), with the second being Frankenstein’s attempts at supplanting nature and the traditional role of both women and God. With regards to the second, Frankenstein’s science is a means for humanity to circumvent the limits of nature for our own ends. Frankenstein’s partiality to alchemy definitely did influence the creation of the Monster, even if science was his claimed vocation. The concept of artificial creation of living beings is taken directly from Paracelsus, an alchemist who spoke about the creation of artificial life in the form of ‘homunculi’ (UK Essays, 2013). While scientific methods may have been used, as suggested by Shelley, the motivation came from the desire to circumvent nature.
The shift from alchemy to Frankenstein’s chosen science is not too big a leap, as alchemy did, in fact, evolve into chemistry, Frankenstein’s chosen science (UK Essays, 2013). Both alchemy and chemistry involve the seeking of knowledge to understand our world and both work with the manipulation of elements to attain a result. While alchemy does garner negative stereotypes, the majority of alchemists (especially those mentioned by Frankenstein) did have altruistic intentions (Feder, 2015). It can be argued that Frankenstein’s objectives were also good, but this does not seem to have been his intention. Instead, his intentions seems to be purely scientific, while his actions were alchemical. He stated that he would “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley, 1987, p. 40). This goal seems to suggest that science and knowledge itself were not merely a means to Frankenstein, it was the end. In this manner, his wanton pursuit of knowledge through the reanimation of the dead proved to be his undoing.
It is sufficient to say that Frankenstein’s science was a bizarre hybrid of scientific goals and alchemical practices. This ‘mutant’ of science and alchemy was made possible by his forays into chemistry, the descendant of alchemy. It was a conversation with his Professor Waldman that inspired him to pursue the sciences in earnest, a conversation that, Frankenstein stated, had “decided [his] future destiny” (Shelley, 1987, p. 42).
There are two beings given agency to create life: females and God. This is the natural order. Frankenstein seeks to circumvent the natural order through science. There are many Biblical and religious themes and references throughout the novel, with Frankenstein even referencing Dante when describing the Monster, stating that “even Dante could not have conceived” the hideousness of the creature (Shelley, 1987, p. 53).
Frankenstein also has similarities with Genesis. The serpent spoke to Eve about the Forbidden Fruit: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, NIV). Adam and Eve were punished for supplanting God as the sole bearer of knowledge. Frankenstein does similarly by attempting to displace God as the creator of life. There are further analogies found in the subtitle of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus. In mythology, Prometheus sought to aid/create (depending on the version) human life and was punished by the gods for doing so. While Adam, Eve and Prometheus found punishment at the hands of an external punisher, Frankenstein was punished by his very creation, literally crafting his own destruction.
Knowledge as a destroyer, in the nature of Genesis, are echoed by the conversation of the Monster itself:
“I cannot begin to describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me: I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge.” (Shelley, 1987, p. 125)
Knowledge in the novel is depicted originally as the fundamental goal (in the sciences) but soon becomes the gateway to destruction. Not only does it lead to the creation of the Monster, but also to the alienation of the Monster from society.
Science and knowledge in Frankenstein plays the role as not only Frankenstein’s motivation but also the means to his own destruction. The passage wherein Frankenstein creates his Monster highlights the pinnacle of his scientific achievement and leads to his downfall. This essay has shown how Frankenstein transitioned from a proponent of science to regretting it, how science can be a tool for evil, the relationship of alchemy and science and how knowledge and science as circumventing nature and God leads to the destruction of Frankenstein.
Ultimately, this essay has shown how Frankenstein’s relationship with science led to his downfall, and how the corruption of the natural order will always lead to harm.
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Oppenheimer, J. R., 1965. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. [Online]
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 This may be due to the fact that she was not, in fact, a scientist. As a writer of fiction, however, she does have the right to portray it in the manner she deems fit.
 Calling the bomb a Frankenstein is a classic confusion of Frankenstein and his Monster. The intent is still clear that Conant is referring to the Monster, however.
 The foreshadowing nature of Frankenstein’s kiss may be a reference to the fact that he created the creature who comes to murder Elizabeth. In effect, he killed Elizabeth – a fact which may not be lost on him.