Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein uses a Romantic view of nature and society to argue that the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the rational discovery of ideas through scientific research and experimentation is a danger to society. Shelley constructs the character of Dr. Victor Frankenstein to represent the Enlightenment’s emphasis on scientific discovery, while the monster represents Romanticism’s emphasis on instinctual, emotional, and natural actions. As a doctor and scientist, Victor relies on science, reason, and knowledge to give him purpose in life and to explain the world around him, which Shelley uses to represent Enlightenment principles. Furthermore, Victor’s tragic fall functions as a condemnation of the Enlightenment’s rationalism because Shelley uses the way that Victor conducts his experiments to portray the horror of scientific discover and to make him responsible for the monster’s actions. During the initial stages of the Enlightenment, early scientists often had to cut open stolen or donated bodies because society was so backwards that they lacked basic understandings of the human body. By experimenting and observing the human body, scientists dramatically increased society’s medical efficiency by documenting the location of major arteries and organs in the body. However, Shelley condemns scientific experimentation as if conducting experiments served no purpose. For example, Victor’s description of his emotions during the first experiment tends to condemn science as insensitive and absent of morality:
“During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the consummation of my labor, and my eyes were shut to the horror of my proceedings. But now I went to it in cold blood, and my heart often sickened at the work of my hands.” (Shelly 153)
On the other hand, the monster tends to represent the ideas of the Romantic Movement because of his cultivation of his emotions and understanding of his feelings. Unlike Victor, the monster is portrayed as affectionate and morally concerned as the monster recognizes that, “If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes, and I shall become a thing of whose existence everyone will be ignorant” (Shelley 137). Mary Shelley tends to portray the monster in a positive light despite his terrible murders because the monster, unlike Victor, can recognize that nature is sacred and reject his selfishness by caring for another.
Shelley’s portrayal of science as an uncertain practice as well as her portrayal of the monster as a sensitive, but deadly, being resonate for us as a culture because science has always been magical for people in society. For instance, as average people in society, we know how to type and search on computers, but we do not know how computer code executes our words and searches. We know how to make calls and send text messages, but we do not know how our phones send those messages. We know that our doctor is giving us medication, but we do not know why or how that medication works. Even Dr. Frankenstein refers to his discovery of the origin and cause of life as a “secret.” Society is dominated by “secrets,” specialists and people who do not understand the specialists with the “secrets.” From GMO “toxins” to cell phone “cancer” to climate change “lies”, people without specialized knowledge of scientific fields tend to view scientists and scientific advancement with a lens of skepticism. Furthermore, people from every culture and every time period question their own existence and question how much science can explain of their existence (search “Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate” anywhere on the internet). Mary Shelley simply documents her own skepticism of science, but her questioning of man and monster’s creation as well as her opinion on science runs deeply through every culture and every religion.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003. Print.