The origin of life has fascinated man throughout his history. Every advancement in science and technology has brought man closer to realizing this idea. However, as early as the 1800’s, there have been many who questioned the moral aspects of artificial generation and the psychology of the “mad scientist” who would perform such a deed. For example, in the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley explored and analyzed these questions in her electrifying story, Frankenstein.
As with anything else, creation by man requires ambition, and Shelley believes that ambition must be controlled. She uses the life of her character, Victor Frankenstein, as a lesson to all of what may happen to an over-ambitious man. “Learn from me [Frankenstein], if not by my precepts, at least by my example...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 30). In this sentence, Shelley warns against the dangers of knowledge and ambition. However, she doesn’t discourage ambition or the pursuit of knowledge, but instead provides a strong caveat against the abuse of it through the dying words of Frankenstein to Walton. “Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I [Frankenstein] say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed” (Shelley 162). Thus, it is clear that “Mary is not criticizing exalted ambition, but the misapplication of it” (Kiely 165).
Scientific knowledge and curiousity is also a prerequisite for a would-be creator, and Mary Shelley condemns the pursuit of this knowledge. Early in the story, Frankenstein asks Walton to learn from him the dangers of the acquirement of knowledge (Shelley 31). In particular, Shelley finds the field of science to be particularly dangerous. “None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as other have gone...and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.” (Shelley 29-30). It is this knowledge that would enable Frankenstein to create a monster that would later destroy both his loved ones and his life. Besides providing a societal danger, scientific discoveries are also deleterious to the individual’s soul and spirit. “Mary Shelley recognized that...Frankenstein’s passion for scientific research is a displacement of normal emotions...affections. Significantly, when Victor is working on his experiment, he cannot love: he ignores his family, even his fiancèe Elizabeth, and takes no pleasure in the beauties of nature...he becomes physically and mentally ill, subject to nervous fevers” (Mellor xxi). In the story itself, Shelley seems to directly speak to the reader when she says, “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful...[or] not befitting the human mind” (Shelley 34). Consequently, Shelley’s position on the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a negative one because of the potential harm that it may bring society and the harm that such passion would cause to the individual.
The most important issue related to creation is the question of man’s right to create life. Shelley, in accordance with her religion, believes that only God has the divine right to create life. “Victor Frankenstein’s quest, to ‘bestow animation upon lifeless matter’ and thereby ‘renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption,’ is in effect a quest to become God, to become the creator of life and the gratefully worshipped father of a new species of immortal beings” (Mellor xv). It isn’t in Man’s nature to create life, and when he does attempt to play God, as Frankenstein did, he will be punished. This idea directly relates to the Genesis story where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple of knowledge that was reserved for God and never meant for Man. In Shelley’s story, Frankenstein is also enticed by the apple: “I have...always...been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (Shelley 21). Hence, while God has always created beautiful creatures, Frankenstein would “consume the apple”, as Adam and Eve did, and use the knowledge to release a monster “such as even Dante could not have conceived” (Shelley 36).
Shelley’s portrayal of the life of Frankenstein acts as an example to the world of the dangers of interfering with the natural order of the universe. Frankenstein’s ambition and curiousity caused him to pursue knowledge that is forbidden to any mortal creature. He then used this knowledge to create a hideous creature who would carry out Frankenstein’s punishment for both tampering with nature and abandoning him “after birth”. In conclusion, Shelley certainly favored nature over science because of the potential of science to do harm.
Kiely, Robert. “Frankenstein.” Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus. Philedelphia: Running Press. 161-170.
Mellor, Anne K. Introduction. Mothering Monsters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Washington Square Press, 1995. vii-xxiii.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.