Knowledge Shall Forge the Path to Destruction

December 12, 1995
E 302

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, transcends the realm between Gothic horror and scientific fact. Its “ultimate message concerning man’s relationship to the acquisition of knowledge and things brought into being out of that knowledge” is a fundamental aspect of the story (Vasbinder 13). Frankenstein is an allegory based on the belief that tampering with unknown, creative knowledge and the forces of Nature brings destruction to mankind. Shelley departs from typical attitudes, in both literature and science during her time, that assumed creation or creativity was a good indication of progress. Bloom notes that instead Shelley combines scientific fact with supernatural horror to show how man destroys himself as he meddles with knowledge that is beyond his ability to understand (Vasbinder 17).

The idea of a gothic novel first appeared around “1760 -1820 and was associated with the development of new forms of popular literature” (Heller 326). But a gothic novel goes beyond this simple description, for it suggests a discontinuity between scenes and chapters within the novel’s construction as well as a specific type of thematic composition. The way that Frankenstein is written fails to maintain a unity within the text, unlike most other literary forms of literature, and “it [the text] like the book [content and plotline], draws into the chaotic order of destruction” (Tropp 21) which describes itself as a gothic text. Mary Shelley, herself, sought to write a story that would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature” (Botting 31). That’s exactly what she did, playing on the fears of what may come from quickly advancing scientific knowledge and its experiments.

Frankenstein departs from the long line of allegorical traditions in that it presents symbolism in literature from a scientific approach. An allegory is a story where one symbol in the novel has a double meaning or greater importance than implied. Shelley’s representation of the monster, Victor and the process of man creating a man are carefully constructed within the novel where they become symbols whose meaning takes on a whole new light. The end result of these symbols, when placed into their “proper” interpretation, deals with the intermixing of modern science and alchemy– and suggests what horrors are produced from the conjunction.

The Victorian era was a time of scientific upheaval. Great advances in scientific knowledge were being made. No longer did scientists believe in the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air as the overall composition for all materials and life on earth, also known as alchemy. Rather, a new form of science was evolving from minds like Charles Darwin, who first suggested the theory of evolution, and before when Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery and development of the law of gravity and scientific method changed the process used in to expose the hidden truths of Nature. However, Botting notes that these ideas were not known to Shelley and were those that were included in the first publication of Shelley’s masterpiece in 1818 were soon deemed “unworthy” or alchemic (Vasbinder 9).

Since its first publication in 1818, Frankenstein has developed a following of critics who have argued for or against the scientific accuracy of Shelley’s ideas. It is this element that has held critics on two separate sides of the novel. Many of the early critics, not including the opinions of the sources cited herein, deemed the scientific fact “unworthy of a writer” (Vasbinder 9) and said that the overall publication held just a “power of fascination” for the reader (Vasbinder 5-6). Only one of the London magazines enjoyed and gave a good review of the novel, the Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine.

The two main branches of disagreement critics have towards Frankenstein is aimed at the “scientific attitudes” presented in the novel. The first group agrees with earlier criticism in believing that the scientific information presented in the novel has no truth, no bearing on actual scientific fact; once again the work is deemed alchemic mixed with sorcery and has no elements of Newtonian science (Vasbinder 11). This group believes Shelley’s science is not important to the themes contained within the novel and that the scientific information was put in the novel to tie images together and make the whole book seem “realistic.” The other group, however, believes that the scientific information, whether alchemy based or pure imagination, does have some bearing on the theme of tampering with unknown, creative knowledge and forces of Nature and how it brings destruction to mankind. For, it is in the sciences or literature, where mankind would be able to perform such a feat as described by Shelley. It is from the this perspective that this critique is written. It is also from this position, where most modern critics take a stand.

There is no doubt that Mary Shelley was a well read author. Taking a peek into her reading journal one can definitely see that she read the most popular novels and authors of her time and even some very obscure titles. It has been suggested by Sam Vasbinder, that most of the literature on science and artificial humans presented in Frankenstein was taken from several works such as Condillac’s Treatise on the Sensations a work that ” attempted to make clear the theories of Locke concerning the learning process” (43). From knowing what Shelley read in the scientific fields, we can assume that she knew exactly what sciences could do when she was constructing Frankenstein.

Shelley’s scientific ideas, in Frankenstein, were also taken from David Hartley’s Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations, which dissects man’s emotional and sensational development (Vasbinder 39). Vasbinder, in his book, takes the reader through Hartley’s Observations and selects a paragraph from Frankenstein showing in detail how Hartley’s theory on the development of man fits into Shelley’s vision of creation.1 This passage proves that Shelley knew to some limited extent that her scientific ideas were factual, although outdated [from a modern perspective, of course], and that a situation such as Victor Frankenstein’s might one day become very true.

From the first glimpse of Victor Frankenstein, the reader knows that he is a man driven by passion. It is this passion which drives him to devise and advance his unspeakable experiment. Even Robert Walton, discovers this, for although the two search for different truths, their quests take them to the verge where the “spirit had been broken by misery” (Shelley 35). From a very young age, Victor is seen laughing and playing in Genevese, a place that Shelley almost depicts as the garden of Eden. The only death presented in this part of the novel is the natural death of Victor’s mother. However, it is during his thirteenth birthday celebration that Victor Frankenstein develops his first taste for scientific knowledge, in the form of Cornelius Agrippa (Shelley 44). It is from this moment on, when his life (and the events in the book), are sealed by his study in the unhallowed arts.

His first introduction into the world of science is of alchemic descent because of Victor’s strong interest in Agrippa’s ideas on the nature of life and death. But his father’s dislike and attempt to stir Victor away from the “sad trash” (Shelley 44) could have stopped the unlawful experiment that brings the book to life. A fact to which Victor himself acknowledges. If only he had been told why this information was such then he too would have stopped his pursuit of the ultimate truths to the nature of things (Shelley 44). He admits that if he were told “that a modern system of science had been introduced… it is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin (Shelley 44). Instead, he is found trying to procure copies of all Aggrippa’s works and later, those of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, alchemists whose main purpose was to “penetrate the secrets of nature” (Shelley 44). These alchemists, whose ideas seem to coincide with those presented by the works of Hartley and Condillac, along with other great philosophers interested in solving the mysteries of life and death and what lies after, have now given Victor Frankenstein a glimpse into what his fate may be.

In his article on “Frankenstein and the Alchemy of Creation and Evolution”, Irving Buchen states that
what Mary Shelley establishes is that with respect to the occult, science has taken over the role of skepticism previously performed by religion [and the occult]. Thus,

although Victor’s first introduction to the occult rapidly elicits his father’s strong disapproval, what already led to his dissatisfaction was his scientifically-applied measure that the means called for to achieve noble visions were shabby and bordered on the hocus-pocus of magic. (106)

Buchen makes several assumptions in his analysis of Victor’s first introductions to the scientific realm. First, he assumes that what Victor later attempts in the novel is due to pure “scientific” methods and theories and that the occult or alchemy had no role in Victor’s experiments. Secondly, Buchen implies that Victor is dissatisfied with the occult or alchemic principles, which in fact Victor is not. It is because of this interest in the alchemic principles that leads him to creating his monster. Finally, Buchen states that in order for Victor to achieve his vision he needs to turn more towards science instead of the “hocus-pocus magic.” In all three cases Buchen is wrong. It is in the fusion of alchemy and science where Victor is actually able to create his offspring. Without the background knowledge of either science or alchemy/ magic the dream would have never been born and Victor would have never learned what delving into unhallowed arts would do to mankind. Without this knowledge of alchemy mixed with science, Victor would have never tampered with the unhallowed arts that lead to his destruction and without this there would never had been a great gothic novel, by any standards.

As we see in the novel he fuses his knowledge in alchemy with science gained at Ingolstadt to bring his creation to life. It is also this fusion in the unknown, creative forces of nature that ultimately cause man’s destruction, as illustrated in the novel.

Victor’s desire to conquer death and the unknown stems from his early encounter of his mother’s death. He desires to uncover a way to keep death at bay or to control life from dying, so that life is longer, better, and more enjoyable. It also seems as if he wants to bring back all the happiness and innocence that he lost when his mother died. During his early study of the alchemists and philosophical theories on the nature of life and death, Victor remarks that he eagerly sought what was only fulfilled in dreams and books– the revival of the dead by way of “rising of ghosts or devils” (Shelley 45). Here Shelley relates literature to science in that both create entities or reveal hidden truths of nature. Science seeks to discover the impossible and prove that what can only be done in books can also be done in reality, through the manipulation of the natural laws of the planet. Victor’s desire to raise the dead combined with a curious interest in the laws and interworkings of electricity as told to him now bequeaths him the procedure to attain his goal of unearthing the ultimate truths of the nature of life, at the ripe age of 15 (Shelley 46).

Victor is then sent away to school to learn the arts of the new science and eventually be lead into the hands of fate. As a student, Victor is remarkable. In his first two years at Ingolstadt, he gains the respect of most of his professors and astonishes his peers with his knowledge (Shelley 52-53). The university is more adept in training students in the arts of Newtonian science, which is said to be the science that “will show man the way to knowledge and truth and make him master of the universe” (Vasbinder 71). Mixed with his love and knowledge of alchemy, Victor discovers how to incorporate the two in a perfect blend for his future experiment (Vasbinder 11). Later, he develops his knowledge of chemistry, human anatomy, and electricity- all elements that will further his pursuit into destruction (Shelley 53). Equipped with this new knowledge of the workings of man and his sensations, Victor is now ready to “attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of similar organization” (Shelley 55). Yet even this new knowledge hasn’t prepared him for what will take place once he begins his experimentation.

There are many critics who, up until this point in the novel, agree that Victor’s delving into the unknown forces have been just idle dreaming. But, since his induction into Ingolstadt, this idle dreaming has now lead Victor to the conscious act of creation. However, there are subtle differences in each point these critics make about his tutelage. For example, Tropp believes that all of Victor’s learning and training at the university leads him up to the point of fueling his desire to exchange life for death (23). Whereas Buchen believes that in “by bypassing the natural for the alchemic-scientific and eliminating the role of a woman (or the other) in the creation of a new being, Victor Frankenstein is presiding over that crucial nineteenth-century transition from nature-induced to man-induced creation and evolution” (107). Here, it is in eliminating nature from creation, where Frankenstein asks for nature to do something horrible to him.

Victor tampers with the powers of creation that have yet to be understood much less experimented upon. To bring life into a body once that life has been removed is almost a fundamental taboo of the conditions of having life. It is almost like breaking the rules of the universe to cheat death of a life. It is this unknown path of Nature that God has kept a secret from us. Yet, Victor believes that he has the information if not the ability to create a fully grown man without a chance of failure. But the imperfect mind of man, can only create imperfect entities from an idealized vision. He is a fool to even think that his creation will be nothing less than perfect.

This thought, of being a creator, a Godlike figure, captivates Victor into believing that he can, and eventually will achieve what is only dreamed or read about in horror tales. He further deludes himself by saying how “a new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (Shelley 55). There is no thought whatsoever of the chances of the experiment failing and what destruction or fortune would occur if he did succeed in his endeavors. At this stage in the investigation of creating artificial life, Victor is unaware of the true horrors that the experiment’s needs and demands require.

What does the experiment require? In order to animate a body, Victor must first find a suitable donor. For this he “collected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human mind” which is then kept in jars and bottles scattered around his house (Shelley 56). Throughout his descriptions and recollections of the gruesome acts done in the name of science, not once does Victor see the madness and stark horror of what he is doing. The stench alone would have caused most men to go insane. However, secure in his abilities and equipment, all that is left for Victor to do is wait until the perfect moment to create the first of his children.

Victor’s experimentation with body parts takes him one step further in his journey into madness. Culturally, desecration of the dead was a taboo and by disturbing the peace of the dead, Frankenstein is just asking for horror to befall him. Once again Buchen states that “by failing to anticipate the consequences of his act, Victor Frankenstein unknowingly gave rise to the myth of creating a Frankenstein and thus summed up what is by now the classic dilemma of science : the unforeseen and examined consequences of certain kinds of scientific inquiry” (108). In resurrecting the dead, Frankenstein has unleashed a new, destructive force upon the Earth that he is incapable of dealing with or understanding. Here is where the scientific information in the novel becomes destructive rather than a good indication of progress. For it is this desire to create another lifeform outside the boundaries of natural law where knowledge brings the destruction of mankind.

“It was on a dreary night of November” when Victor begins his operation of creating life from death (Shelley 57). Even this line echoes the beginning of Genesis when God created man in his own attempt to search for his truth. At the moment of creation, as his “anxiety that almost amounted to agony” Victor finally beholds his progeny (Shelley 57- 58). His first impressions? “Beautiful!- Great God!” was his first exclamation upon laying eyes on his creation (Shelley 58). From just the text of the quote it is hard to note the agony and disappointment Victor feels at his greatest moment. But, from the tone and the implication made it is seen that his delusion has finally caught up to him and he is now faced with the reality of the horrible creature begotten from death. What has taken him two years to create, all the beauty and happiness of “infusing life into an inanimate body” (Shelley 58) has been swept away, “the dream vanished” (Shelley 58). Then, like any other first time parent he promptly leaves the room screaming in terror.

At the moment of conception, Victor’s tampering becomes a reality. Buchen suggests that at this moment “the monster at birth is not a monster” (108-109), which suggests that the creation is indeed a sign of progress and is not destructive. However, he also states that we cannot take Frankenstein’s reaction into consideration. Buchen is wrong. He is wrong on the premise that the knowledge we are given about the monster at his creation is through the filter of Frankenstein. It is until later in the novel where we are given the monster’s side of the picture. Since we are given only Victor’s impressions, Shelley leads us to believe that the monster in his creation is evil and thus not a good indication of progress. All Victor’s tampering with his unhallowed arts and godlike sciences had lead him to unleash a destructive force upon mankind.

The actual process of conception is eliminated, as if it had taken place within a dream. Many critics speculate as to why Shelley would have left the text so elusive in the process of the monster’s origin (Botting 5). Some critics felt that it in leaving this elusive Victor’s realization of his horror and madness is brought into the forefront of the novel. It is these critics who also believe that the scientific knowledge, in the book, is blurry due to the novel’s long history of revision from 1818 to 1831 (Vasbinder 31), the later being the date of the text that this paper is being based on. As stated above, Shelley wanted the novel to be profound in its prophetic abilities and not too scientifically realistic. This discussion relates to the topic of knowledge as a destructive power because it is in mixing alchemy with science that leads to the destruction of mankind, whether it be bringing the dead back to life or any other horrors. Either way, all the natural laws of Nature that bind mankind to God have been broken and from the forge a new race is born.

Traditional superstition of artificial humans in literature regards them as “agents of evil” and symbols of “powerful, new unrealized forces which man is not yet able to control” (Vasbinder 33). This describes both the attitude and description of the monster as Victor sees him. For in the novel, as Victor’s once happy life slowly crumbles into dust because of his thirst for truth and subduement of death, the monster now becomes the embodiment and reaper of destruction. Here, we see the object that Nature has selected to wreak destruction upon its creator. Because Victor tampered with knowledge beyond his ability to control, he now becomes the victim of that he created. He has no control over the monster and cannot destroy it; he can only wait until the time when his knowledge will surpass the physical nature of his creation in order to free himself and the world from its destruction. In a sense he must now wait for death to consume the being that was brought from it.
It is interesting that both Victor and his progeny reflect the idea that the monster is evil and destructive, due to his physique. Not once in the novel does Victor believe that the monster can be otherwise. From the very beginning Victor has associated his creation with evil and has condemned him long before he understands the nature or personality of the beast he created. The monster is a creature brought into the world with no guidance except for his twisted and deathly instincts, and even he believes that there is no one in the world, except if there were another like him, who can share in his experiences.

The monster, whose creator has abandoned him must now learn how to develop himself and interact with the world about him. Buchen believes that he has learned how to live as a human through the actions and observations of living near the DeLaceys where “human development is contingent on human example” (109). This is true, except that this doesn’t explain the destructive nature of the monster, for the DeLaceys do not seem a all particularly violent. Buchen also believes that the monster’s development into civilization is due to the appearance of Safie where he learns that “the only antidote to mortality is love” (109). Again he is wrong, for there is much more to life than just love. Victor Frankenstein is proof of this, for his life is based around the teachings and learning of the scientists and alchemists of his time. He has no room for love, until he realizes his own mortality after all that he has loved or cared for has been destroyed. However, if this were true, then why does the monster choose knowledge and destruction over love, as his means of understanding his surroundings and experiences?

Knowledge becomes the monster’s outlet to understand all that is happening to him. Speech and symbolic literature become his godlike science in which he will use to destroy Victor. As he learns how to communicate and read, a parallel discovery to that of Victor, and in using this information for destructive purposes, he falls into the same fate that Victor did in creating him. His experience with other humans and the allegories he draws from several books causes him to develop a hatred for all people like Frankenstein. Reading a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, he sees himself as having the traits of both Adam and Satan (Mays cited in Vasbinder 23). Where he is the first born of a new species of man, he becomes a symbolic Adam, and his abandoned God is Victor Frankenstein. But in his fall into knowledge and destruction, he becomes the fallen angel of Satan. Therefore “his life has become a product of its rejection by men and creator” leaving destruction as the only means for survival (Mays cited in Vasbinder 23).

It is because of this innate desire to associate death with life, and later with Victor, that causes the monster to kill people closest to his creator. Also, Victor’s refusal to create an Eve to his Adam gives him grounds to use death as a binding power to Victor (Shelley 124). The monster is bent upon the physical destruction of the man who created him and upon taking away all that he holds dear. Thus the order of those who are taken away from him bring many meanings. It is because of his desire to create a new being outside the natural methods, that the monster destroys those Victor loves. Victor’s tampering with knowledge to powerful for him to comprehend, once again leads to destruction.
The monster slowly takes away all those whom Victor cares about, beginning with those furthest from his heart and ending with those for which he holds the deepest love and respect for. Justine and little William are the first of physical deaths the monster inflicts upon Victor in its thirst for revenge. Then in one final blow in his destruction of Elizabeth, the monster strips Victor of all hope for his return to the past and the happiness he once treasured.

There is no justice in the novel for either Victor Frankenstein or his creation. In his destruction the monster tries to break Victor, both hopes of redemption for his failure to handle the godlike sciences of creation without going through natural means, as well as paying Victor back for both the pain and suffering that the monster has experienced. All this because of Victor’s inability to deal with his creation after its genesis, from not teaching him to read and speak to the failure in giving his offspring a name. But even redemption is striped away from it “for while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires” (Shelley 184). According to Buchen, they are “locked in eternal pursuit, [where] the two now serve as the mates of each other, the two halves of a whole that shall never be united except in mutual annialiation” (110-111). The ultimate outcome of all Victor’s hopes and aspirations has ended in destruction. It is from this destruction and the desire to defy nature and the natural order of life that this outcome is spawned from and only in death can the two find true happiness and release from this nightmare.

Even as the story ends with the death of Victor in the barren wasteland of the arctic (which also has yet to be conquered) the monster is denied his revenge (Shelley 183). There is no hope for the chance of his redemption and now “the fallen angel becomes the malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone” (Shelley 183). This final view of the monster sums up all that he has gone through. He is now a misunderstood being whose only desire in life was “love and fellowship” (Shelley 184). He has been denied the right to have a wife, and lacks the physical appearance to have companions.

“Where can I find rest but in death,” is all that is left of the tale of Victor Frankenstein and his creation (Shelley 185). For in the act of creation did Victor create his demise and the destruction of those close to him and it is through the actions of his progeny that the destruction is carried out. Through the attraction of needing to know and understand what lays beyond his control, does man create the possible pathway for the destruction of our own species.

The idea that creation brings about destruction also parallels Shelley’s own creation of the novel. For in the writing of the novel whose words might implant many seeds of destruction in other people and change the way others think about the definition of progress as a good quality, she becomes Frankenstein, whose ideas were to change an entire world:

The novel offers an appropriate metaphor of the writers activity :

the reconstruction of dead fragments from many bodies, the traces of many texts, into a new and hideous combination that refuses to submit to the authority of the creator. Frankenstein can thus be read as an interrogation of origination, creativity and authority. (Botting 22)

Here creation whether it be a human form or a work of literature is seen as destructive. Writing and creating takes something away from the creator as it endows another with its qualities. Mary Shelley gave away a vision; Victor Frankenstein gave away everything he held true and dear to his heart to pursue the discovery of the true nature of death.

On a grand scale the novel, as a allegory, represents Shelley’s prophesy that scientific knowledge may lead us down the very same pathway that Victor Frankenstein walked. The advancement of science, technology and literature ultimately leads to destruction or the implement of an idea that will lead man to destruction. Progress, in the form of science or technology, does have its drawbacks and usually leads to the destruction of Nature or the creation of objects that will lead man to destroy himself and the rest of the planet. The message and prophesy that Frankenstein carries, that of the destruction brought by unnatural creation, should be adhered to and that man should leave Nature and God to do the creating and planting of knowledge that should be known to man. Or one day the horror that comes from twiddling with godlike knowledge may come back to destroy us.

Would it have been better to not tamper with the knowledge in the first place, since the outcome leads to the ultimate destruction of mankind? My answer would be yes. But since this outcome is not known in Victor’s mind, before all is said and done, he must learn his lesson the hard way. Indeed is such the tests of history and it is only through literature like Mary Shelley’s vision of what may come when man tries to poke his curiosity into knowledge, where we should take heed and advance our knowledge in the fields that won’t lead us closer to destruction.

1 Vasbinder, Sam H. Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Ann Arbor : UMI Research Press, 1984) 40-43.
In this four page passage, Vasbinder shows how the seven “classes” of sensation can be found within the text of Shelley’s Frankenstein. These seven sensations are “(1) sensations, (2) imagination, (3) ambition,(4) self interest, (5) sympathy, (6) theopathy, (7) the moral sense” (40). Then these sensations are said to produce the following results :
1. The impressions made on the external senses.
2. Natural or artificial beauty or deformity.
3. The opinions of others concerning us.
4. Our possession or want of the means of happiness, and security form, or subjection to hazards of misery.
5. The pleasures or pains in our fellow-creatures.
6. The affections excited in us by the contemplation of the Deity; or,
7. Moral beauty or deformity. (Vasbinder 42)
Finally, these items are placed within the context of Frankenstein itself showing how the two are interrelated.

Of what a strange nature is knowledge! (1) It clings to the mind, when it has once seized it, like a lichen to a rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling (1); but I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensations of pain, and there was death (4) – a state which I feared but did not understand. I admired virtue and good feelings (4 & 7), and loved the gentle manners of my cottagers (5); but I was shut out from intercourse with them (4), except through means which I obtained by stealth, when I was unseen and unknown, and which rather increased than satisfied [the] desire I had of becoming one among my fellows (3). The gentle words of Agatha, and the animated smiles of the charming Arabian, were not for me (2). The mild exhortations of the old man (7) and the lively conversations of the loved Felix, were not for me (4). Miserable, unhappy wretch! (4,6,7). (Vasbinder 42-43)

Works Cited
Buchen, Irving H. “Frankenstein and the Alchemy of Creation and Evolution.” Wordworth Circle. Philadelphia, n.p. 8 (1977) : 103-112.

Botting, F. Making Monstrous : Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory. New York : Manchester Press, 1991. 2- 30.

Hiller, Lee E. “Frankenstein and the Cultural Uses of Gothic.” Frankenstein ed. M. Smith. Boston : St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 326.

Tropp, Martin. Mary Shelley’s Monster. Boston : Houghton Miffin Company, 1976.

Vasbinder, Sam H. Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ann Arbor : UMI Research Press, 1984.