Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Knowledge without Understanding

            “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?  He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.”
Shelly 131

            In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley presents her ideas of the nature of man and his dual nature as both creator and destroyer.  Whether through Frankenstein’s struggle to attain the knowledge to conquer death and the repercussions of that endeavor or the monster’s visit to the cottage where he begins to understand the world around him we see that nothing is as simple as good and evil.
The book opens with the narrator, Captain Robert Walton writing letters back to his sister on his journey for the discovery of knowledge.  From an early age he had spent his time reading of discovery, “…a history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good uncle Thomas’s library” (3).  After finding the stranded Victor Frankenstein the story shifts to Victor’s perspective as he begins to relate how through a similar thirst for knowledge he ended nearly dead in the middle of nowhere.  From here we see how young Victor begins his education by reading theories of scientist such as Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus.  After being sent away to study, Frankenstein learns that his idols of science are in fact outdated but he continues forward with his pursuit.
Through these studies he learned to reanimate dead matter in affect creating new life.  “Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability.  It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being,” (49) here we see that Frankenstein does not fully understand what he is setting out to do.  Creating life as science has taught him to understand is something as simple as merely a connection of systems that must function correctly together.  To Frankenstein it seems as simple as building a machine and he gets lost in his own delusions, “A new species would bless me as it 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” (49).  It seems so simple that after creating a species that he would achieve the status of a god or God himself even making the allusion that he would be greater than God by having a personal interaction with his creation to God’s distant relation.
Armed with the knowledge to complete his work and after laboring for 2 years he succeeds in his dream but, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (54).  Frankenstein flees from his creation attempting to forget and hide himself away from what he has done until the monster finally leaves.   In his first act of creation Shelley shows how incapable Frankenstein has become, all the knowledge he had acquired to manifest life from death has done nothing for his ability to handle his creation.  Frankenstein imagined himself the creator, the God, of a new species and he is incapable of facing the responsibility.  After the creature fled, Frankenstein is recalled to Genevese at the death of his brother and upon his arrival becomes convinced that the creature is the one responsible.  In reflection, his creature finds him and attempts to confront him to explain all that has happened.  The creature describes how happening upon a hut inhabited by 3 people he observed and began to learn from them.  Through the collected reading of books to the young mans beloved he learned“…of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans - of their subsequent degenerating - of the decline of that mighty empire; of chivalry, Christianity, and kings.  I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants” (131).  Through this fragmented learning through no direct interaction with other people the creature builds and understanding of language but more importantly an understanding of people.  He begins his education as if like a child simply observing and not truly understanding what these people are doing.  As his language skills develop he begins to question what drives the people to happiness or sadness.  This fractured education marks the fault of Frankenstein as creator, he used his knowledge to create life beyond his ability to truly understand the consequence but he failed to teach his creation anything about existence.  What good was the knowledge of the scientist when it came to matters of life?  What else has Frankenstein’s knowledge caused but the death of his brother and the creation of something beyond his understanding?

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Mumbai: Wilco Publishing House, 2002. Print.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The theme of knowledge was a fantastic topic for your blog entry. I believe that knowledge is one of the most important themes present throughout Frankenstein. I wholeheartedly agree that the presence of knowledge in Frankenstein is often unaccompanied by understanding. Frankenstein fails to understand the ramifications that his creation may have on society. He is also not capable of understanding what to do when his monster comes to life. Frankenstein cannot handle his creation and flees, teaching it nothing about its existence or life in general. These ideas are clearly stated and explained very well in your blog.

    If you were looking to revise this blog entry, I feel that the theme of knowledge could be expanded on a bit further. One of the concepts of knowledge that I would consider is the adverse consequences it brings upon those who acquire such knowledge. For example, Frankenstein’s thirst for knowledge essentially ends up destroying his life. He drives himself crazy creating his monster, but then wants nothing to do with it when it comes to life. This monster proceeds to cause many of the most important people in Frankenstein’s life to perish. Frankenstein’s knowledge is also the reason that the monster holds his life hostage until Frankenstein creates a female monster.

    The consequences of knowledge also directly applies to the monster. As he observes the family in the cottage, the monster learns about many basic aspects of human life. This knowledge only ends up depressing the monster, and even making him frustrated. The monster was not raised by anyone; his creator abandoned him. He does not know what it is like to be loved or cared for by others. He has no one to relate to, as there is no other like him. The monster is all alone, feeling that he will never be accepted by his human counter parts due to his appearance. Thus, the knowledge gained by the monster only serves to enlighten him to how unfortunate his existence is.

    As we observe the many adverse effects that such knowledge has had on both Frankenstein and his monster, one can only predict that such a thirst for knowledge will end up affecting Walton in a similar way. Will Walton come to realize this before it is too late? Is Walton doomed to a similar fate of depression and frustration once he attains what he wants so much to achieve? Maybe Walton will manage to attain the knowledge that he seeks without losing himself in the process. One thing is certain, Frankenstein’s story will have some kind of effect on Walton. Only time will tell if Walton benefits from this tale.

    Overall, your blog entry is very well written and to the point. There is not much I would change except for the further expansion on the consequences of knowledge. This topic is, in my view, the most important theme present in Frankenstein, and there is certainly much more to be discussed concerning this idea.

  3. I would have liked to see the introduction more explicitly worded as an argument. I think that would have helped you avoid, or reconsider, some of the problems you get into later. Something along the lines of: "Frankenstein criticized [reexamines, questions] our propensity to divide the world [humanity, each other] into categories of good and evil that don't withstand careful scrutiny." That's my take, anyway, on what you're trying to do.

    It's an interesting and fairly bold take on the novel. Rather than an attack on the evils of science gone awry, or an exploration of various kinds of criminal insanity, or of the evils of empire or patriarchal domination, you want to see it in terms of greys: neither the monster nor Victor are good or evil (are they beyond the concepts, or are the concepts flawed? The difference matters!).

    But what you do isn't to make that argument. Instead, what you do is to summarize some parts of the plot in detail. You include citations, but those citations don't serve any clear agenda (that is, they don't help prove the argument that good and evil are incoherent/transcended/whatever in the novel). You almost exclusively remind us of what happened, rather than referring to the particulars of the details that make your particular argument.