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Nataly Baez- Writing Sample

Frankenstein and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Romantic Era


The pursuit of knowledge in a typical sense is not considered a sinful endeavor
by most modern groups, though in history has been seen as a tricky ambition. While
inventors and scientists have generally always been lauded for their discoveries, some
portions of the population worried, and continue to do so, about the extent in which
people are willing to go for such knowledge. Many stories have focused on the subject,
including Doctor Faustus and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but Mary
Shelleys Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus remains amongst the most cited for
its address of the topic. Shelleys commentary on the quest for scientific knowledge
beyond the human realm, its misuse and discovery based on solely selfish reasons
rather than for the betterment of mankind, serves as a reproach to the Enlightenment,
the cultural movement that encouraged the acquisition of knowledge and scientific
advancement. In this way, Frankensteins tale becomes one of a cautionary nature for
those pursuing knowledge beyond their realm and for their own recognition.
The Enlightenment made headway during the 17 th and 18th centuries, under
which the Scientific Revolution sprouted and scientific advancements and rationalism
were promoted. During this time philosophers and scientists were encouraged to make
use of the scientific method and were ultimately allowed more freedom in their
endeavors. By the end of the 18th century ideas of the Enlightenment were beginning to
fade. Artists in particular reacted to the cultural movement with Anti-Enlightenment work
and with the Romantic period. Romanticism served as a break from the Enlightenment
period by encouraging the use of emotions, a delight in nature, spontaneity and
aesthetic artistic developments. Most artists and intellectuals of this dawning period saw

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the Enlightenment as artificial, cold and as a form of suffocating artistic expression.
Thus Romanticism became a means to escape the calculating realities of the Scientific
Revolution.
Mary Shelleys ideas concerning the Enlightenment and knowledge may have
derived from her parents participation in the movement. William Godwin and Mary
Wollstonecraft both contributed to the Enlightenment period with their philosophical
writing. Wollstonecraft in particular is considered an important figure during the
Enlightenment for her views on feminism. Her opinion was that females, despite popular
notions of the time, were not biologically inferior to men and were only disadvantaged
by their upbringing and their lack of academic opportunity. Godwin on the other hand
focused on utilitarianism and the early blue prints of anarchism, ideas so radical it
propagated physical attacks. Having been introduced to revolutionary ideas from
prominent figures in the movement early on and her participation in Romanticism may
have contributed to Shelleys troubled stance on the subject of knowledge.
Many critics suggest that Shelleys apprehension towards scientific development
of the sort Frankenstein pursues may be due to her gender. Frankensteins experiments
sets out to create human life through unnatural means without a woman. His ability to
do so ultimately goes awry; this might imply that scientific reproduction or any
reproduction that excludes the presence of a mother will fail. While many support this
view within the context of her mothers feminist writings, which would have influenced
the highly educated Shelley, the birth and death of her infant child and her own
pregnancy at the time of her writing (Franklin), some aspects of the novel undermine
this view. The subtitle for instance implies the importance of forbidden knowledge rather

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than the negative effects of masculine birth. Another example exists in Frankensteins
monsters desire for female companionship. The creatures yearning for a bride and
Frankensteins decision to destroy the almost completed bride stems from her ability to
reproduce, not the monsters. If Shelleys fear is of women becoming obsolete within the
process of reproduction then would Frankenstein not have equipped his monster with
the ability to reproduce asexually? If this were the case why would Frankensteins
monster specifically need a female monster in order to build a family? Though there is
evidence to support Shelleys fear of masculine reproduction, most of it is not textual but
within the context of her life.
Shelleys ambivalence may stem from her parents participation and her own
opinions on the pursuit of knowledge. While she does not chastise all scientific
advancement, she does fear the effects of pursuing knowledge outside of the human
realm. Victor Frankensteins desire to create life without the use of natural reproduction
represents the pursuit of forbidden knowledge that Shelley feared knowledge
reserved for higher beings. By igniting life into an inanimate object, Frankenstein plays
out the role of God without accepting the responsibility and consequences of his
experimentations. The unraveling of his life and the lives of those he loves places his
pursuit of knowledge in a negative light. But to Shelley the pursuit of knowledge is not a
negative ambition, but once motivated by recognition and power becomes corrupted.
This sentiment becomes clear near the end of the novel when Victor states that where
he has failed yet another may succeed (Shelley 152). In saying this, Shelley
condemns Victors approach but also indicates that had his quest been rooted in a

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desire to better humankind rather than for his own idealistic pride (Hindle xxxii) it may
not have been so disastrous.
The idea of forbidden knowledge is constant throughout the novel and throughout
history. Romans, Greeks, and Abrahamic religions all have myths about forbidden
knowledge given to humans despite the wills of the Gods, an act that results in severe
punishment in every account. This knowledge is often represented as light or fire.
Shelleys use of fire within the text, along with the subtitle of the novel alludes to these
myths in her attempt to criticize Victors search for the forbidden, his misuse of science
and for his quest for knowledge solely based on selfish reasons. Frankensteins
monster, viewing the world from a fresh perspective, understands fire as a source of
enlightenment, a powerful tool but also as having the potential to burn him if touched or
used incorrectly. But the parallels between fire and knowledge dont end there. Fire can
be described as the more extreme version of light, which is mentioned at intervals within
the text in relation to Frankenstein and to Walton, who describes, depending on the
interpretation the North Pole or the scope of scientific development as a country of
eternal light (Shelley 1). Fire again is used as a symbol when Frankensteins monster
vows to ignite his own funeral pyre. In this case fire literally consumes Frankensteins
work, which adequately describes the effect of his pursuit of knowledge throughout the
novel.
Shelleys conflicting opinions on the quest for knowledge also becomes apparent
through her contrasting depictions of Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval. While
Frankenstein is represented as a classic Enlightened individual, Clerval captures the
basic characteristics praised by the Romantic period. Clerval, as opposed to

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Frankenstein, is a poet and described as no natural philosopher (Shelley). Aside from
being a much more creative man than Frankenstein, he also seems to be a better
friend. After Frankensteins creation of his creature he retreats back to his homeland
and reunites with Clerval for the first time in several years. Until then Frankenstein had
abandoned his family and his close friends in his pursuit of knowledge. Clerval, though
concerned for Frankensteins well being, does not prod him with questions and seeks
only to aid him. Ultimately, Frankensteins creature destroys Clerval, an act that in
metaphoric language could foreshadow the effects of forbidden knowledge on the
natural or the Romantic.
Frankensteins creatures physical being also provides evidence of Shelleys
opinion on the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. What makes Victors creature a
monster? Victor shirks his responsibility to his creation because of its hideousness.
Though he attempts to create a Gothic ideal pale skin and dark hair the outcome of
Frankensteins overreaching experimentation reveals his lack of understand of the
natural and depreciation for the aesthetic. Frankenstein, who devotes his life to scientific
endeavors unlike his close friend, Clerval, ultimately creates a shadow or double of
himself. Much like in the role he is playing of God, he creates his creature in his image
but his image reflects his refusal of Romantic ideals, one of which is natural beauty.
Therefore, the creatures lack of Romantic beauty becomes the root of the disaster.
Perhaps if Victor could have embraced some Romantic ideals or at least had the
betterment of humankind in mind, his creation would have been beautiful and therefore
not considered a monster (Bloom 614). Had that transpired, Frankenstein would have

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taken responsibility for his experiment and raised him correctly, but only with the
infusion of Enlightenment and Romantic ideals.
Mary Shelleys creation best reflects her opinions on the Enlightenment and the
Romantic era. While in her private life Shelley condemned traditional Romanticism, her
novel serves as a rejection of extreme Enlightenment ideals. Her text encourages a
balance between the two movements; her assertion that one day someone may create
life successfully, and not just reanimate the dead leads us to believe that she did not
spurn all scientific advancements but only those that sought out knowledge that she felt
were outside of humanitys right. Frankenstein walks a dangerous road to knowledge,
one that exceeds the human realm. His failures derive from his inability to balance his
own Enlightenment ideals with that of the Romantic period. Had he not set out to create
life under the spell of power and recognition (Lunsford 175), had he embraced some
Romantic ideals of beauty and thus created beauty, had he been content to study that
which was available to him and not overreach by playing the role of God, maybe his
creation would have been his proud legacy instead of an abandoned, conflicted
abomination.

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Citations
Bloom, Harold. "An Excerpt from a Study of "Frankenstein: Or, The New Prometheus."
Partisan Review 32.4 (1965): 611-18. Web.
Franklin, Ruth. "Was Frankenstein Really About Childbirth?" The New Republic. The
New Republic, 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.
Hindle, Maurice. Introduction. Introduction. By Mary Shelley. London: Penguin Classics,
2003. Xxxii. Print.
Lundsford, Lars. "The Devaluing of Life in Shelleys FRANKENSTEIN." The Explicator
68.3 (2010): 174-76. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. New York:
Random House, 1982. Print.