Victor Frankenstein’s Unhallowed Arts
Mary Shelley’s novel shares many similarities with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” including the possible reading of her work being an allegory for the consequences of tampering with nature (which was the theme of my last post about Coleridge). Though, whereas “the Rime” can be interpreted as a lesson on the values of wildlife preservation, Frankenstein seems to focus more on what happens when humans try to play God.
The novel tells the story of a young scientist who is insatiably curious about the nature of life, “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world” (Shelley 23). When he enrolls in college he quickly makes a name for himself as the most intense and motivated among all of his peers, spending nearly every waking hour (and even many of the hours in which he should be sleeping) devoted to his studies. His ultimate goal seems to be to put himself at the forefront of scientific discovery and innovation; “I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest memories of creation” (33). And what better way to do so than to discover the cause of generation of life? or, even better, to learn how to do it oneself? But when Frankenstein finally succeeds in doing this, he almost immediately regrets it. He is horrified by his creation and rather than immediately trying to exterminate it, he runs away and hides from it until it leaves his home and slinks off into the darkness. Frankenstein is relieved that it is gone and doesn’t hear anything of it until several months later, when he is notified that his brother William has been murdered and his nanny, Justine, has been accused of committing the crime. After seeing the monster near the site of the murder, Frankenstein realizes that it was the creature that had actually killed him, but remains silent knowing that no one would believe him, and as a result, Justine is executed. Thus, Frankenstein, in his quest for knowledge of (as well as power over) nature has unwittingly created a monster and karma seems to be getting back at him for it.
Shelley herself has said that much of her inspiration for the novel came from conversations she had overheard between her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron during the “haunted summer” of 1816; “They talked of Dr. Darwin…who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion…Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things” (xxiv). Though these types of things were mostly theoretical at the time and centuries away from Dolly the sheep, stem-cell research, etc. it’s obvious that at this point people were already starting to experiment with and theorize about tampering with life. Shelley doesn’t go into too much detail in her introduction about whether or not she thought it was a good or a bad idea, but given that it pushed her to write Frankenstein, it may be safe to say that she was at least wary of the idea, and maybe even that the novel, which in its embryonic stage was merely a story meant to frighten her friends in an Alpine cabin, when fleshed out to full novel form, is also a cautionary tale on the consequences of playing God. It’s no coincidence that Frankenstein’s creation, which is “more hideous than belongs to humanity” (59) would result in the deaths of those closest to him. It’s the punishment Shelley thinks he deserves for his ”unhallowed arts” (71).
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851. Frankenstein. New York: Signet Classic, 2000. Print.