Thursday, April 26, 2012

The heroism of transcendental goals

            The beauty of the writing in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the intricacy of the main characters. Victor and his monster both lie in ambiguous grounds between hero and villain, and it is up to the reader to decide that individually. The monster is obviously a very deep character, constantly seeking acceptance and increased knowledge. It is hard to describe its exact place in the novel in such black and white terms as hero or villain. The novel itself is not a tale of a hero conquering a villain. It is about a quest for knowledge and the dangers that can be associated with that. Levine discusses the implications of transcendental knowledge within the context of this novel. “Frankenstein embodies one of the central myths of realistic fiction in the nineteenth century, even in the contrast between its sensational style and its apparently explicit moral implications. It embodies characteristically a simultaneous awe and reverence toward greatness of ambition, and fear and distrust of those who act on such ambition” (Levine 18). The monster becomes more dangerous as he acquires more knowledge and grows, and Victor creates the monster in his search. They both become separate from the society that surrounds them in accordance with their quests for greatness and power. While anybody would admit that these two main characters are not flawless, it is possible to say that they are both heroes in this novel as they pursue the common goal of knowledge and understanding.
            When beginning to debate if these characters are heroes, it must first be defined what a hero is from a very basic sense. Many people proclaim they have a hero based on the accomplishments of that person that came from their pursuit of an ultimate goal. This pursuit of a clearly defined goal and the rigors involved in the path to obtain it can describe a hero as much as any other definition. In this case, aren’t Victor and the monster both heroes? These are two characters are constantly at odds from the moment the monster is conceived. It is very easy to cast either of them in a villainous role for some of their appalling actions towards each other. However, that would only occur if this novel was viewed from a more fairy tale viewpoint. This is an older novel made during a time when many intellectuals were seeking new knowledge on a journey to self fulfillment, and there was a great deal of emphasis on the individual. Both Victor and the monster could be considered Romantics in this way. The creation of the monster is Victor’s largest attempt at his aspiration to become a godlike figure. This creation forms an obvious connection between the two characters, albeit somewhat of a familial one. Despite their differences, they are both searching for the same transcendental knowledge to go beyond the capabilities of humanity as an individual. George Levine discusses heroism in the novel, and he states:
 Frankenstein spells out both the horror of going ahead and the emptiness in return. In particular, it spells out the price of heroism … Heroism is personal satisfaction writ large. That is, it implies the importance and power of the individual human being, not in the web of responsibilities which constitute personal action within his family and society and which deter him from all but the most compromised and therefore moderate satisfactions, but in the testing and fulfillment of personal powers. To test is to risk loss, and, of course, disenchantment with self. To risk the test is to cut the cord, to assert one’s selfhood as an independent being of others. The alternative to the test is repression of self, the establishment of constraints for the sake of order and peace. Frankenstein is, in a way, about cutting the cord” (Levine 28-29).
Both characters are on a path for personal satisfaction. After the monster is abandoned, his personal satisfaction would come from an abundance of knowledge. If Levine is correct, the monster is displaying heroism by showing strength despite his loneliness. He laments it, but he never lets it impede him in his search for higher knowledge. This definition of heroism in the novel can also apply to his link with Victor. Victor is on a search to “cut the cord” and go beyond other humans in terms of knowledge and accomplishments. The monster removing some of the people closest to Victor allows him to more easily continue his search for the things he desires. The monster essentially frees up Victor to be a hero fueled by endless ambition. Later in the novel when the monster requests that Victor create a companion for him to share his life with, he initially refuses the request and eventually destroys his creation before it is brought into life. The two characters both prevent traditional familial happiness for the other so they are both able to continue on their quests. Victor probably best states the case that these two should be considered heroes at the end of the novel when he addresses Walton’s men who want to turn their ship around:
“Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind” (Shelley 248).
This passionate speech by Victor can apply to both his quest and that of the monster. A glorious expedition is something that would be transcendent and never done before. This is precisely what Victor and the monster are trying to do in their search for knowledge and power. They both had treacherous journeys with many problems, but they both overcame in different ways and continued on the quest. This speech could also reflect the link between Victor and the monster which is always present because it ends up being indicative of both characters and their journeys. The most accurate way to describe these characters in terms of heroism comes from Levine’s article. “As an ambitious hero, he wants to change things, to improve them, and much of the novel, as I have pointed out, regards the mechanisms of society as cruel and unjust” (29). This describes Victor as an “ambitious hero.” This is the most accurate way to describe Victor and the monster in terms of their searches. They both long for family and a sense of community, but these are things that prevent them from pursuing their goals so they see society as unjust. They, instead, both have a great deal of ambition in their endeavors, and they both seek to improve their own fame and knowledge throughout the novel. In their respective searches to accomplish new levels of intelligence and undertakings, they could both be considered heroes.
If one were to view the monster and Victor through E.O. Wilson’s eyes, he might see that Wilson would see these people as heroes as well. These two characters both cannot accept normal human biological limitation that is placed before them, and they strive to reach new goals for mankind. Victor attempts to conquer death by reanimating that which is already dead, and the monster embarks on a quest to seek an incredible amount of knowledge and understanding. Wilson states, “Thus the danger implicit in the first dilemma is the rapid dissolution of transcendental goals towards which societies can organize their energies. Those goals, the true moral equivalents of war, have faded; they went one by one, like mirages, as we drew closer” (Wilson 4). Wilson recognizes that human beings have become complacent in their quest for more knowledge and growth. These “transcendental goals” are very important for the further advancement of the human race, but they have been largely abandoned over time. Part of this is a moral dilemma. Wilson continues to say that “Innate censors and motivators exist in the brain that deeply and unconsciously affect our ethical premises; from these roots, morality evolved as instinct. If that perception is correct, science may soon be in a position to investigate the very origin and meaning of human values” (Wilson 4). The dilemma that Wilson argues is that humans are almost capable of transcendence, but there is a moral compass that prevents us from doing that. Although if morality evolved in the brain, it may be possible to change the idea of it. Victor is able to overcome this dilemma without much difficulty. “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit … A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility … If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed” (Shelley 50-51). Victor is able to recognize that some things must be ignored in order to reach new heights. These classical models are used as examples to show that people of the past accomplished these transcendental goals of mankind by going against society and aiming for higher goals. Victor is simply doing the same thing as all these famous men of the past by trying to conquer death. Rauch’s article discusses the conquering of death, and how it would affect a man to have this ability:
“The process of using galvanism in a restorative manner, that is to introduce electricity into objects living or dead was … familiar to scientists … Many others, including William Nicholson, who discussed Aldini's experiments in his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, agreed: ‘In the mean time the reader, will, doubtless, receive satisfaction from this short notice he [Aldini] has enabled me to give of his labour, on a subject which promises greatly to extend the limits of natural science and may be reasonably expected to add to the powers which man is enabled to exert for his own benefit over the numerous beings around him’” (Rauch 241-242).
Aldini was a man who did experiments using galvanism to attempt to restore dead bodies. Some people, like Nicholson, agreed with his attempts. Nicholson recognizes the sheer power that would come with developing this science. It would be a transcendent triumph for mankind and would allow humans to control the living world in a much more concrete way. Victor’s eventual conquering of death by the creation of the monster from pieces of dead flesh is his transcendental moment where he overcomes moral and physiological boundaries to accomplish a goal that no one else in the world could. It is a heroic moment for him in a more technical sense of the word, and this moment is what defines Victor for the remainder of his life.
            While it is true that the monster commits several unforgivable acts, it is only due to the fact that Victor and other humans are standing in its way on the quest for more power and knowledge. By leaving it to be alone, Victor already made it more difficult for the monster to grow after its original birth. He was the first human being to shun the monster, and the De Lacey family followed suit. From the monster’s point of view, Victor becomes the enemy over time and vice versa for Victor. After that, the monster “Declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me” (Shelley 152). Due to Victor’s abandonment and the rejection, he no longer seeks companionship and is able to look for something else. However, it is important for the reader not to cast either of these characters as the villain. The monster is much more of a hero than Victor in the classical sense of which it is normally thought. It is a being of extremely distinguished, and unparalleled, ability, and possesses godlike power. Shelley does not try to make the monster seem like an average person at any point. It is able to learn and gain strength at a speed that a human could never fathom, and it reaches levels of these things that no human ever could. Rauch describes the scene depicted on page 158 of Frankenstein where, “She was senseless; and I endeavored by every means in my power to restore animation,” and he states that “The enormous strength of the creature contributes to his success … In doing so, demonstrates a moral commitment to the application of knowledge” (240). It commits a soulless act and uses the knowledge it has acquired in its short life to save a young girl’s life. He knows that he is grotesque to humans, and they will most likely be appalled by the site of him; however, he still feels a moral obligation to save this girl based on knowledge it acquired in the past. The monster undoubtedly lives up to traditional idea of a hero.
In general, it is on a search for knowledge and acceptance into the general community. It begins the novel as a solitary character when Victor runs away from it at its conception, and it ends alone in the world after Victor passes. Due to the monster’s solitude, its only real option is to live alone and attempt to gain knowledge on a search for acceptance. When the monster’s narration first begins, it recalls some of its early life to quickly make it a sympathetic figure to the reader. “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept” (Shelley 111). The monster originally is cast as a tragic figure with no knowledge or understanding of the natural world, or itself for that matter. Literary heroes often begin their journeys in a down-and-out kind of state. The monster is able to ascend from this incredibly quickly, but the reader’s sympathy allows the monster to come from a place of fright and confusion and rise towards greater understanding. The monster comes upon the De Lacey family shortly after this, and his quest truly begins then. He is so taken with the family structure and the emotions involved. This interest could be perceived because of abandonment by his father as well. It feels the emotions that the family feels and connects with them, “I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. (Shelley 120). After it begins to develop emotionally, it quickly acquires a taste for intellectual knowledge. It first wants to understand speech after it hears them communicating with each other, “I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds … This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it” (Shelley 121-122). The monster genuinely wants to learn speech so that he can communicate his emotions to others, whoever those others may be. Its journey toward his goal of knowledge continues to move along, and it seems more heroic as its narration continues. One moment of the narration that is incredibly interesting is when the monster begins to learn of human history from readings of Ruins of Empires. It learns of the historical values of human nature and some of the more intriguing cases. The monster states that “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. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious appeared the lowest degradation” (Shelley 131). After reading this, it is very difficult not to think of the monster itself by the end of the novel. It can easily be described by all of the terms it sets forth here. However, the monster specifies that being base and vicious is “the lowest degradation.” At that point, it becomes known that the monster is not a despicable being that would intentionally harm someone out of malice. It is simply a creature that desires companionship and transcendence and commits some terrible acts in the pursuit of that. These positive features of human’s that it describes such as “powerful, virtuous, and magnificent” are traits that the monster aspires for in the novel. It wants to be held in a high regard intellectually and socially, similar to the heroes that are written in the human history books. To obtain this high regard, it must obtain greater understanding of human nature and higher intelligence. When the monster finds the bag of books, it reaches another level of thinking. It relates to all the books it reads, especially Paradise Lost, and gains a great deal of knowledge from these. By this point, the monster has grown so far intellectually it is obvious that it has a much higher capacity for knowledge than any human. The monster never reaches its heroic goal of being understood by humans, and it wanders alone in the Arctic at the end of the novel. When the monster encounters Walton at the end of the novel, he states that “Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment … I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness” (Shelley 256). The monster laments his time alive and the torture he inflicted on his master. He makes it clear in this passage that he was indeed on a quest for fame and transcendence during his life. The way that Shelley contrasts his actual, noble endeavors and his crimes against Victor make his actual quest seem that much more heroic. Compared to the murders it committed, it makes it clear that all it ever wanted was to acquire a tremendous amount of knowledge and reputation. It was all part of his journey, and the fact he uses the words sublime and transcendent in his lament lets the reader know that these were, and still are, the monster’s intentions. He is led to feel bad by society for his crimes, but he still has a desire to obtain knowledge and power deep down. This fact in no way diminishes the monster’s life long quest for acceptance. It does, however, accomplish its goal of gaining an enormous amount of eloquence and knowledge in this pursuit.
            From a more technical definition of the word hero, it can be applied to both Victor Frankenstein and his creation. They both have a great deal of parallels in their stories and their quests to obtain a tremendous amount of knowledge. It is difficult to understand either of these men as heroes, but once morals are put aside, they can be seen as heroic figures attempting to accomplish a defined, transcendental goal. If more readers were able to look at these two as heroes for those virtues, it could help us grow towards more transcendence and growth as a society. The textbook Evolutionary Analysis discusses one of these major problems with natural selection and the further development of human society towards transcendental goals. “[Evolution] is not progressive in the sense of leading toward some predetermined goal. Evolution makes populations “better” only in the sense of increasing their average adaptation to their environment. There is no inexorable trend toward more advanced forms of life” (Freeman and Herron 93). This is just proof that evolution by natural selection will not lead human beings towards any new and major progressions any time soon without a push from the scientific community. Humans have adapted to the environment in place, and, although it is changing more rapidly than ever, there will be no major changes in our DNA or ethical values that come from that. On Human Nature discusses the limitations that humans have placed on themselves through growth of ethics and the inherent problems with natural selection. Wilson believes that emotional responses have evolved via DNA just like any other trait, and he offers a loose idea of what humans may need to do in order to progress ethically and emotionally. “Human emotional responses and the more general ethical practices based on them have been programmed to a substantial degree by natural selection over thousands of generations. The challenge to science is to measure the tightness of the constraints caused by the programming, to find their source in the brain, and to decode their significance through a reconstruction of the evolutionary history of the mind” (Wilson 6). Although it is hard to agree that emotional responses have been formed by genetic natural selection, he does make a very strong point that we need to loosen the constraints of these features in order to advance as a society. Victor’s wayward venture to reincarnate human flesh is certainly an extreme example of this advancement. Rather, the monster’s quest for tremendous amounts of knowledge and power are a more accurate version of where human beings should be trying to go. Although murder is clearly no option, the monster is able to look past some of the ethics he has learned in order to continue his quest. At the end of his novel, Wilson proposes some very important questions. “The human species can change its own nature. What will it choose? Will it remain the same, teetering on a jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations? Or will it press on toward still higher intelligence and creativity, accompanied by a greater – or lesser – capacity for emotional response” (Wilson 208). These questions let the reader imagine these scenarios and try to picture what may happen in the future. Science fiction has always been a genre that imagines what could happen in the future. By understanding the main characters of Frankenstein as heroes for their journeys, the reader would be able to form their own answer about Wilson’s question and recognize that the human species must go through some sort of change in order to transcend the current limitations.
Works Cited
Freeman, Scott, and Jon C. Herron. Evolutionary Analysis. 4th ed. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2007. Print. 
Levine, George. “’Frankenstein’ and the Tradition of Realism.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7.1 (1973): 14-30. Print.
Rauch, Alan. “The Monstrous Body of Knowledge in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.” Studies in Romanticism 34.2 (1995): 227-253. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publication, Inc, 2009. Print.
Wilson, Edward. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.

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