In Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, written in the late
nineteenth century by Mary Shelley, Shelley proposes that knowledge and its
effects can be dangerous to individuals and all of humanity. Frankenstein was
one of our first and still is one of our best cautionary tales about scientific
research.. Shelley’s novel is a metaphor of the problems technology is causing
today. Learn from me. . . at least by my example, how dangerous is the
acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his
native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his
nature will allow (Shelley 101)
The popular belief of how Frankenstein came to be written derives from
Shelley herself, who explains in an introduction to the novel that she , her
husband Percy Shelly, and Lord Byron set themselves the task of creating ghost
stories during a short vacation at a European villa. According to Shelley, the
short story she conceived was predicated of the notion as the eighteenth became
the nineteenth century that electricity could be a catalyst of life. in her
introduction she recalls the talk about Erasmus Darwin, who had preserved a
piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began
to move with voluntary motion,” (Joseph vii). The extraordinary means forms the
basis for Frankenstein. Many people also believe that a nightmare that Mary
Shelley had could also be partly responsible for the creation of the novel.
At the time the novel was written, England was on the brink of leading
the Industrial revolution in Europe. The experiments of Huntsman (crucible
steel manufacture), Newcome (steam-powered pumps), and Cochrane (coal tar
production) throughout the eighteenth century in England were decisive in the
initial transformation of England into an industrialized country (Burke 137, 173,
195). The emerging age of technology appears to have found followers throughout
the culture and to have become firmly reinforced by the time Frankenstein was
written. Eric Rabkin (author), says that in England early in the eighteenth
century, “there exist a populous discourse community that accepted the rhetoric
of science” (Rabkin 39). This rhetoric has proof extending back to the English
Renaissance. Those sensitive to change and those prepared to embrace a rhetoric
of change need not be scientists. While scientists address a discourse
community of scientists, novelists address a wider discourse community of
the literate. If we can accept the earlier argument that science and poetry
are not ontologically antagonistic, then we might well hope to find fictional
uses of the rhetoric of science . . . in texts scattered from Francis Bacon’s
time to the present. These uses would change as the prevailing first principles
of the time evolved under the impact the advances brought by science and as the
consequent needs of artist also changed . . .
In the early seventeenth century, when the prevailing first principles
in the artist’s discourse community were theological, Bacon, as we have seen,
used the authority of theology to validate the rhetoric of science. As science
and technology and the persuasiveness of the rhetoric of science changed the
world and the way people viewed it, the competing authorities changed their
balance until today the rhetoric of science is used to lend authority to
religion (Rankin 25, 37).
Tillyard confirms the proof of science and technology as firmly
established in Mary Shelley’s lifetime by quoting a book on Homer that
proclaimed England’s arts improving and its sciences advancing. Tillyard’s
point is that “the eighteenth-century myth of freedom in England included the
doctrine of progress” ( Tillyard 106). The doctrine of progress is connected
with the emerging doctrine of industrialization and science. It was this
doctrine, seemingly inside by English scholars and popular culture, although
reflected by imagination it may have been, that it can be said to have provided
scientific proof for Frankenstein. Rankin states that “Shelley had written a
palpable fable and she knew that its full effect depended on authorizing some
possibility of belief” (Rankin 42). Science provided in the novel provided
that authority, creating a foundation story in what the English culture current
with Mary Shelley would have taken as real world possibility. The rhetoric of
science in fiction is not merely a modern overlay on storytelling, nor is it
employed, except fortuitously, to convey newly discovered information about the
world. Once upon a time fiction, which obviously is not true, took its
authority form the Muse: at other times from the Bible. Neither of these
sources of authority would do for Shelley, but authority has always to be found
somewhere if we are to distinguish the lies that tell truths form the just plain
lies (Rankin 43).
Industrialization and the development of science were a sign that the
mind was no longer medieval as it was modern. This explains the use by Shelley
of The Modern Prometheus, and it does not eliminate the potential for literary
investigation. Fellman (178, 180) makes this point when he asserts that
Frankenstein was a literary anticipation of the twentieth century with
alienation of human beings and technologies. He asserts that technology has led
to a culture of control of positive creative energy in favor of technology that
developed a life of its own and that there is a parallel in Frankenstein with
Victor’s alienation and withdrawal from his family and from the world at large.
Tillyard deals with the troubling element of moral uncertainty certain in a
culture of scientism when he cites Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, were “the
poet asks by what means liberty, once lost, can be regained.” The answer is hope,
forgiveness, defiance of absolute power, love, endurance, steadfastness. In
this passage Shelley descends from his ecstatic vision of a redeemed universe to
the sober thought that a happy state of things on earth is liable to mutability
There is uneasiness in the vision of the world could be improved by
scientific or at least technical progress. The consequence of technological
action on this view is emotional and psychological on the part of human beings
connected with it. In this regard (Brooks 592-4) suggests that in the novel,
the monster’s comportment makes it impossible for him to access human
interaction; only his ability to speak and communicate offers any opportunity
for interaction. Indeed, the monster’s ability to communicate offers suspense
and pathos, particularly when he demands that Victor create a mate for him: You
have destroyed the work which you began: what is it that you intend? Do you
dare to break your promise? I have endured toil and misery: I left Switzerland
with you: I crept along the shores of the Rhine, among its willow islands, and
over the heaths of England, and among the deserts of Scotland. I have endured
incalculable fatigue, and cold, and hunger; do you dare destroy my hopes?
Begone! I do break my promise; never will I create another like
yourself, equal in deformity and wickedness (Shelley 167).
This goes to the issue of the scientist as villain, as Issac Asimov puts
it. Asimov says that Victor Frankenstein is the prototype of the mad scientist
who invades on those things not meant for man to know, because , presumably they
are reserved for God alone.
What lies behind Victor Frankenstein’s scientific projects is obviously
an attempt to gain power. Victor is inspired by the new scientists who acquired
new and almost unlimited power. Frankenstein has sought this unlimited power to
the extent of taking the place of God in reaction to his creation. In doing so,
Frankenstein has not only disrupted nature, but seized the power of reproduction
in order to become acknowledged. This ambition is very close to capitalism (to
exploit natures resources for both commercial profit and political control).
This is a goal of what many of todays scientist are out to accomplish.
” Frankenstein, Asimov remarks “dared usurp what was considered the divine
choice of giving life and . . . paid dearly in consequence” (Asimov 66). The
subtle irony of the book is of course that Frankenstein is not portrayed as a
villainous character. he is actually, a tragic hero: he meant well” (Asimov
66). The moral dilemma created by progress that outgrows its creator and
develops as it were a life of its own is identified in Frankenstein. Robert
Spector sees this as a concern of Shelley’s. Frankenstein (1818), which has
long enjoyed a reputation as a monster story, was a warning against man’s
domination by the machines he was creating. The evil is not inherent in the
monster, but is a result of the attitude toward it. For Mary Shelley, imbued
with the ideas of progress and the perfectibility of man, the danger lay in a
lack of proper feeling, a failing of charity and understanding. Her long
passages describing the education of the monster have often been criticized as
sentimental nonsense, but they were essential to her point of view. If what the
monster learns about humanitarian principles comes only from book, it merely
increased his wrath to discover their perversion in practice. . . . (Spector
Shelley questioned the morals of the advancing technologies. She saw
the consequences that all the advances might cause. On this view, the novel is
a cautionary tale about what is to come. Shelley’s tale of horror is a
profound insight of the consequences of morally insensitive scientific and
Asimov, Isaac. “The Scientist as Villian.” Asimov on Science Fiction. New
York: Granada, 1983. 65-68.
Brooks, Peter. “Godlike Science/ Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in
Frankenstein.” New Literary History (Spring 1978) 591-605
Fellman, Gordon. “The Truths of Frankenstein: Technologism and Images of
Destruction.” Psychohistory Review 19 (1991): 177231.
Joseph, M.K. Introduction. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary
Shelley. Ed.M.K. Joseph. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969. i-xx.
Rabkin, Eric S. “The Rhetoric of Science in Fiction. ” Critical Encounters II:
Writers and Themes in Science Fiction. Ed. Tom Staicar. New York:
Ungar, 1982. 23-43
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Ed. M.K. Joseph.
Oxford: Oxford Up, 1969.
Spector, Robert Donald. Introduction. Seven Masterpieces of Gothic Horror.
New York: Bantam, 1963. 1-12.
Tillyard, E.M.W. Myth and the English Mind. New York: Collier Books, 1961.
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