Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shelley's Theory on Knowledge and its Consequences

Throughout Frankenstein, Shelley demonstrates downfalls and misadventures that plague those who obsessively pursue knowledge.  In the letters that are the preface to the main story, we meet our first narrator, Robert Walton.  He lusts after a kind of knowledge, so secret, and so unknown that he is willing to sacrifice his own life, and perhaps the lives of others, in its pursuit.  It becomes apparent how extreme this devotion is, when, in Letter 3, Walton blatantly declares,“…how gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise,” He even goes on to say that, “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of knowledge which I sought…”  (Shelley, 14)   It is in this state of mind, that he encounters an elderly Victor Frankenstein.  Frankenstein, upon recognizing the young Walton’s fanaticism and unwavering devotion to the discovery of knowledge, becomes incensed.  “ Unhappy man!  Do you share my madness?  Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught?  Here me—let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”  (Shelley, 15)   This is not only the introduction to the main plot of the novel, but also is the introduction of Shelley’s theory on knowledge and its consequences.  She presents a theory which states that an obsessive, perhaps unhealthy thirst for knowledge, especially the sort of knowledge that is closely linked to the supernatural and the taboo (for instance, the books of Alchemy that a young Victor becomes so enraptured with) will certainly damn you to a cursed existence.

It is made plain several times throughout the novel that the obsessive pursuit and acquirement of knowledge is extremely dangerous.  Shelley does this by having Frankenstein directly tell Walton that the unhealthy pursuit of knowledge is surely cursed, in addition to having other characters, such as Frankenstein’s father and professor; both of them comment on the unhealthiness of Frankenstein’s obsession with outdated and somewhat supernatural “scientific” texts.  In addition to blatant statements supporting Shelley's own theory by various characters in the novel, she also presents the theory in a way that, at least in the context of the story, proves itself to be true.  If Frankenstein hadn’t possessed the urge to study the supernatural subjects that he was so enraptured with, and did not have the fanatical determination that enabled him to accomplish bringing his creation to life, then his youngest brother William would never had died, nor his family’s beloved servant Justine. 

There is clearly a direct correlation between the two instances that Frankenstein points out himself.  After Justine is executed unjustly for the murder of William, Frankenstein declares that he is in fact, directly responsible for both of their deaths.  The guilt becomes so incredibly overwhelming that he contemplates suicide.  He decides against it, as he cannot bear to cause his family any more pain, and instead he must deal with his grief in silence; any hope of punishing himself for his misdeeds seems impossible. In the end, it is Frankenstein’s creation that brings pain and torment into his life.  Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this theory is the realization that Frankenstein’s grief is largely self-inflicted.  None of this would have happened if he had a healthier, more natural fascination in other, more ordinary and acceptable subjects.

With this in mind, we should approach the novel with the knowledge that this theory may be one of Shelley’s central messages to the reader.  Since it is most likely in the author’s best interest to prove their theory right in the novel, the reader should be cautious before accepting Frankenstein and its messages as being a true portrayal of how a situation like this would most likely pan out.  After all, whereas Shelley is discouraging the acquisition of forbidden knowledge through Frankenstein, others would spin the story in an entirely different light.  For instance, some would call Frankenstein’s obsessive research and work a passionate and admirable pursuit of truth and discovery.  And perhaps, instead of the creation being a force for evil, the creation would instead demonstrate that human beings had now achieved immortality, and power over death.  It is very easy to see how Shelley’s theory could be true, but this is because it is presented in a way in which Shelley controls.  Although it is a powerful message, and one that seems fairly sound in its construction, the reader should be cautious not to buy into it wholeheartedly without examining Shelley’s motivations for presenting such a theory.

Perhaps, one of the most important aspects of this theory is its relevance today.  As advances in science continue to cross boundaries, and perhaps, question our origins as human beings, society beginning to reach an impasse.  Do we go further to achieve the impossible, or do we stop ourselves, in order to protect whatever aspects of humanity we may endanger through our pursuits?  Already through scientific study, we have been able to keep blood pumping through a body while the heart is being operated on, clone a cat who has been long dead, and even begin to understand the nature of the so-called “god particle” which is supposedly linked to the origins of the universe.  As advances in science increase, society is starting to see the trend where the scientific defies what used to be considered to be supernatural, and in some cases, merges with it. 

However, many religious organizations continue to reject advances in science that have disproven some aspect of their dogma. Shelley’s theory that the pursuit of secret or perhaps forbidden knowledge, will lead to misfortune and grief, has been repeated many times in different media in recent years.  One example could be from the plot of the film I am Legend, in which a group of scientists believes that they have the cure for cancer—when instead, the cure turns people into mindless, rabid, nearly zombie like creatures.  By curing cancer, we are defying death, which is, coincidentally, exactly what Frankenstein does by bringing his creation to life.  And in both cases, the results of this pursuit to eradicate death leads to disaster.  This theory that Shelley presents, is just as relevant now, if not more so, than it was when the book was first published.  It truly is a theory that will always exist where scientific progression is being made that challenges natural forces, such as death, or preconceived notions with how the universe operates.  It is a theory that is likely to be tested, perhaps many times within our lifetime.  But the question is, do we push the envelope to go where no one has gone before in the realms of science?  Or do we acquiesce that there are some parts aspects of life that should not be altered, nor destroyed, and to do so, would be catastrophic?  Such is the dilemma that Shelley presents in this theory that is, thus far, weaved throughout the novel Frankenstein.

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


  1. So, this was a pretty solid essay for sure. I enjoyed the chronological/logical construction of it. I think, based on my interpretation, your ideas are right on. I might suggest deleting the paragraph that basically talks about taking what Shelley says with a grain of salt, because I feel like that is a commentary which applies more broadly to the critical study of literature in general, and doesn't need to be explicitly stated in your essay. I mean, I'm not an authority on the subject, and obviously it's your decision about how crucial that little bit of writing is. But mostly, as a reader, I found it to be distracting from your overall/otherwise very good argument.

  2. One thing I want to draw your attention to is the way that you use the text in this essay. You begin by referencing a couple relevant details (as the prompt asks you to do), but then in the rest of your discussion you avoid particulars of the text, including citation, in favor of generalizations about both the text and about the world in general.

    That doesn't mean that you're entirely wrong, or that there's nothing worthwhile here - but it's important to notice that you avoid engaging with specifics through the essay. What consequences does that have?

    Here's an example. You begin by claiming that Shelley has a theory about knowledge: that acquiring too much knowledge (or forbidden knowledge) will damn you.

    That's in some ways a pretty obvious statement about the novel. But focused arguments can emerge from seemingly obvious ones. For instance, if we could pin down exactly what makes some knowledge forbidden, or illicit, and whether there are permissible, or licit, areas in which unlimited knowledge is permitted, we could do a lot to pin down/focus Shelley's theory of knowledge.

    In other words, you recognize the importance of asking: "too much knowledge about *what*" in response to the claim that too much knowledge is bad. But because you never really deal with details of the text past the beginning of the essay, you never really attempt to answer that question, but turn to generalizations instead.

    You also never consider any real difficulties with your argument. For instance, we might ask if Victor's problem is that he seeks knowledge that he shouldn't, or that he mistreats other people (e.g., the monster), by not taking responsibility for the knowledge he has. I'm not saying that it's wrong to suggest that the knowledge itself is the issue - but that's another way in which your seemingly easy and obvious claim could be opened up, or made more complicated.