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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Desire to Share the Dangerous Knowledge


From its start, Frankenstein establishes a link in between the procuring of understanding, or the uncovering of secrets, and evil. Walton’s sis’s ‘evil forebodings’ that surround his effort to reach the North Pole, pointed out in the very first sentence, signal instantly not just the risks that accompany the pursuit of understanding tempting to a Romantic over-reacher like Walton (and of course like Frankenstein himself), but also that Walton is a character (again like Frankenstein) who is maybe irresistibly drawn to danger. That the reader himself is linked in this harmful expedition into the unidentified is made clear as we are positioned as the audience for the horrible secret that Walton, as the transcriber Frankenstein’s history, is going to disclose. It has actually been noted that, not unlike Paradise Lost, a moral exploration upon which Frankenstein heavily leans, the book is one which has actually exceeded the limits of its text, and is now an item of criticism, rather than a work of literature. Mary Shelley’s description of the novel as her ‘ugly progeny’ is an indicator that, quite apart from the story it informs, Frankenstein as an entity is a symbol of how a trick, once revealed, or “born”, can not be erased, however should be allowed to continue– as the beast itself and his creator are only too painfully mindful– whatever the repercussions may be for its possessor.

Accompanying the sense of risk we feel surrounding the disclosure of secret understanding is an unavoidable fear of its belongings. Interest and fear naturally go together, and the latter generally does little to eliminate the former. Frankenstein is proficient at motivating both, in his preparation of Walton for the story he will inform:

I had figured out once, that the memory of these evils should pass away with me; however you have actually won me to change my decision. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the satisfaction of your desires may not be a snake to sting you, as mine has actually been … if you are inclined, listen to my tale. I believe that the unusual occurrences connected with it will manage a view of nature, which may enlarge your faculties and understanding … (17 )

As an intro to Frankenstein’s story, the passage is packed with ideas, not least the referral to the tree of knowledge and its attendant ‘serpent’, that the possession of the trick– of which the reader is just as expectant as Walton– is not going to be helpful. Frankenstein’s unneeded, ‘if you tend …’ is undoubtedly disingenuous, as he is well aware that he has discovered in Walton one who is looking for understanding at any rate, ‘as I as soon as did.’ Walton tells his sibling that, possibly not unsurprisingly after this sexy precursor, he is full of ‘the greatest passion’ to hear Frankenstein’s tale. He fasts to mention that it is not simple ‘curiosity’ that prompts him to prompt Frankenstein onwards in his confession, but likewise ‘a strong desire to ameliorate his fate.’ A rather suspicious claim in light of the fact that he is still labeling Frankenstein ‘a complete stranger’ at this moment. The phrase parallels practically exactly that used by Frankenstein after the beast has actually asked his creator to listen to his story: ‘I was partially urged by interest, and empathy verified my resolution.'( 79) When once again, ‘curiosity’ is the dominant inspiration, with the word ’empathy’ sounding an unique note of self-justification.

Critics have typically checked out how the frame-narrative structure, with its Chinese-box effect leading us ever closer to an effective kernel of reality that we never ever quite reach, serves as a kind of seduction. Beth Newman discusses how storytelling in Frankenstein, ‘acts as a way of seducing a listener, and as a way of displacing and sublimating a desire that can not be satisfied straight.’ A sense of the seductive quality of Frankenstein’s discourse is given in Walton’s description of his ‘unrivaled eloquence’, released by the ‘optimal art'( 15 ). Later on, Walton offers us a picture of Frankenstein as a sort of siren, luring males at sea to their deaths through the power of his words, encouraging the fearful crew of Walton’s ship to advance their fatal quest with the belief that ‘these huge mountains of ice are mole-hills, which will vanish before the resolutions of male'( 181 ).

Why then, does Frankenstein perform this almost perverse act of seduction, knowing it will only result in heartache? The question can be addressed as soon as again by Shelley’s description of her own work as her ‘kids’; the act of discovery, of sharing of understanding, is as fundamental a human need as maternal reproduction. The novel is full of characters desperate to relate their stories to others, to unburden themselves of the weight of awful realities. Much like Frankenstein, the monster pleads that somebody, ‘hear my tale'( 79 ), and just like Walton, Frankenstein is irresistibly compelled to listen. The desire to interact is echoed once again and once again, right down to the gossipy interactions of Elizabeth in her letters to her fiancée Frankenstein, in which she is triggered by her desire to expose to engage in lengthy descriptions of various parish news.

The example is of course a trivial one, however is one of the many devices utilized in the unique to highlight the distinction in between the blithe discourse of those able to share everything with those they enjoy, and the unpleasant story of Frankenstein, required to conceal tricks and hide his true emotions at every turn. The difference is most overtly highlighted in a contrast of Frankenstein and his pal, Henry Clerval, when they embark on their tour of the European sights together. Clerval is consistently illustrated as a paradigm of human existence, ‘a being formed in the “extremely poetry of nature”‘.( 130) He is also, as “Freudian” readers of the text are so keen on pointing out, one of the many “doubles” that populate Frankenstein. Frankenstein makes this explicit in his assertion that, ‘in Clerval I saw the image of my previous self.'( 131) The implication is that Clerval is Frankenstein without knowledge. Frankenstein consistently characterizes all those in the novel without his knowledge as coming from a child-like, Arcadian vision of innocence, in contrast to his own individual ‘hell.’ Within his sense of scary at his dilemma is intrinsic a sense of superiority, however awful, to those who can not understand the cause of his suffering. Hence he reacts to the advice of his dad with a terse dismissal, ‘though good, totally inapplicable to my case.'( 70) Once Again and once again Frankenstein is careful to mention that his grief is totally his own possession-inaccessible to others.

Robert Kiely discusses the contrasting feelings that Frankenstein feels by the truth of his being a ‘genius’, and therefore vulnerable to a harshness between the human requirement for relationship, to show those he loves, and ‘the right of the genius to work in solitude.’ That superior understanding leads to solitude is substantiated by the events of Frankenstein’s tale. However the explanation is a difficult one, as it advances the concept that Frankenstein earns his knowledge of the trick of human life by means of his inherent genius, rather than through the combination of his ambitious nature and the temptations of the evil branch of natural science that appears to appear luckily prior to him. At one point Frankenstein complains the fact that his daddy, after seeing that his young kid had started to stray down the course of the semi-magical natural conjurers like Agrippa and Magnus, did not ‘take the pains to discuss'( 23) that these men’s concepts were outmoded and akin to a sort of sorcery. Provided this, are we to presume that the reason for Frankenstein’s downfall was simply that his genius was not harnessed correctly at an earlier stage? The question is one that the novel never fully responses.

When Frankenstein details his life at the university in Ingolstadt, a possessive tone as soon as again emerges when he mentions, ‘None but those who have actually experienced them can conceive of the temptations of science.'( 33) The word ‘temptations’, along with allusions to ‘delight and rapture’ and the ‘summit of my desires'( 34) figure the achievement of understanding quite as a sexually charged climax following an exercise in seduction, a formula which mirrors the act of disclosure of his story to Walton. Overt parallels, which would appear to serve as apparent warning signs, occur again and again in Frankenstein, but, as Paul Sherwin has actually mentioned, this apparent genius stays the ‘chief misreader’ of his own story. Frankenstein tells Walton to ‘gain from me’, recognizing the ‘excited’ glint in his listener’s eyes and cautioning him, ‘I will not lead you on, vulnerable and ardent as I was then, to your damage and infallible anguish.'( 35) And yet right after we see him urging Walton and his team onwards to what can just be their damage at the North Pole, utilizing alternating methods of the lure of honour and splendor, and the embarassment of being ‘cowards'( 183 ), need to they turn back from their objective. This is to say absolutely nothing of the truth that Frankenstein is constantly ‘leading us on’ through the very act of exposing his narrative. It would appear that, even armed with what must certainly be the most reliable warning against the ambitious pursuit of knowledge ever developed, Frankenstein is pleased to acknowledge and motivate in others what he contacts himself a ‘fatal impulse.'( 23 )

The lure of prohibited understanding is of course a traditional Gothic example, where it normally works just as strongly for the reader as it provides for the character who experiences it. Caleb William’s acknowledgment of his fatal desire to discover the truth of his master’s shaded past may well be addressed to a reader of Frankenstein, ‘The reader will feel how rapidly I was advancing towards the verge of the precipice. I had a baffled apprehension of what I was doing, but I could not stop myself.’ The distinction is that, while the reader is able to empathise totally with a figure like Caleb Williams, and even a historical, romantic heroine like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Shelley rather pulls us away from an understanding of Frankenstein’s experiences and desires. The frame narrative is an essential part of this, continuously reminding us that we are discovering of a horror we will just ever hear in a tale, rather than experience in real life. Charles Schug indicates this as a ‘needed’ means of containing the ethical experience of Frankenstein within the bounds of fiction. But the significant distancing aspect is that Frankenstein is grappling, not with human emotions and secret family histories, but in a world of quasi-magical, natural clinical understanding that we are not intended ever to attempt to comprehend. The image we are offered of the university at Ingolstadt as an eliminated and remote place of knowing, and its unfriendly teachers such as M. Krempe, strengthens the sense that this kind of knowledge exists in an isolated and inaccessible arena, a world away from the pleased life of relative lack of knowledge and continuous human interaction of Frankenstein’s home. Frankenstein’s ‘workshop’ is similarly marked as isolated and lonely; first in a ‘singular chamber … separated from all the other apartment or condos'( 36 ), and in the future a practically uninhabited island off the Scottish coast.

In her representation of Frankenstein’s and Walton’s self-consciously hazardous pursuit of understanding in the novel, Shelley is perhaps trying to communicate something about the hazards of individualistic, excessive ardour of the Romantic search for enlightenment. We can not assist but be alleviated when Walton is eventually required to abandon his quest and make his way house to safety, regardless of his belief that his failure to reach the pole leaves him ‘oblivious and disappointed'( 184 ). And yet similarly prominent is the parallel pull that the unique makes on our own interest as it pushes on towards its dreadful climax, marking the desire for understanding, however awful, as an inescapable condition of human presence.

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