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Joshua Pennock
School ID: 404651203
Discussion 1C
Prompt: Is Frankenstein a critique or a celebration of Enlightenment values?

Enlightenment and Illiteracy


Kant within his essay: An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?
Outlines what he believes are the characteristics of enlightened individuals and societies.
Within the essay, Kant argues that Enlightenment is mans emergence from his self
incurred immaturity,(Shelley, 1818, Pg.54) immaturity being, according to Kant, the
inability to think for oneself due to a lack of courage or attentiveness of the individual.
Though Kant recognizes public use(Kant, 1784, Pg. 57) of the individual's reason, he
does not point towards a usage for the pooling of knowledge towards the common good.
Therefore his theory implies that the best method of thinking is an isolated mind free
from the shackles of outside influence. In Mary Shelleys novel, Frankenstein, Shelley
reacts to this mode of thinking by displaying the horrors that may come from the idea of
isolated reason. Shelley places a critique on the enlightenment by suggesting true
knowledge and independence must be acquired with the aid of relationships that provide
a societal check upon the judgment of the individual. Shelley displays this to the
audience through the dynamic between Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein and how
each develops throughout the novel as thinkers.

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Robert Walton places the idea of immaturity into perspective for the reader with
his idea of illiteracy and how he himself is illiterate by his own definition. Within
Waltons letters to his sister, Margaret, he conveys how he feels more illiterate than
many school-boys of fifteen. Though it is clear to the reader that Walton is not illiterate
in the literal sense, due to the fact that he is a self educated man who satiated his curiosity
for the first fourteen years of my [Waltons] life (Shelley, 1818, Pg.10) through the
books of his uncle Thomas. How then, can illiteracy be redefined within the novel?
Illiteracy according to Walton, and subsequently Shelley, is the inability to obtain true
knowledge through the help of societal interactions. The idea that humans must act as a
collective in order to accrue true knowledge can be deemed as common reason. This
contradicts Kants idea of maturity because his willingness to act purely as an individual
is the adverse of Shelleys appeal to common reason. Lack of common reason can be seen
by Waltons blind faith within seafaring novels that he spent his entire childhood
educating himself with. If Walton truly were to educate himself, he would not be solely
concerned with epic tales of sea captains but rather a well-rounded form of education.
Due to the lack of philosophy, science, math, literature at the breast of Waltons
knowledge, he cannot be considered a truly educated individual. However, Walton is
aware of his own illiteracy because of his desire [for] the company of a man (Shelly,
1818, Pg.10) and for that desired friend to answer in the affirmative! (Shelley, 1818,
Pg.9). Walton understands that he needs more than just his sea tales to steer him in the
right course towards independence. His self-awareness of illiteracy is important because
according to Shelley, self-awareness and correction of isolated thinking is the only way to

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gain independence. To prove the importance of literacy further, Shelley incorporates the
idea of illiteracy and independence within the framework of the other main characters.
Victor, by the same definition, is illiterate within the narration of his story without
the knowledge or inclination to suggest repair to his own illiteracy. The reader observes
from the start that Victor has a small domestic circle (Shelley, 1818, Pg.21) of
companions, including: Henry Clerval, Elizabeth, his father, and brothers. All of these
individuals have the capacity to steer Victor towards independence. However, right after
Victor describes his relationships within his domestic circle he immediately outlines the
beginning of his illiteracy by stating Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated
my fate. (Shelley, 1818, Pg.22) The description of his relationships, followed by the
immediate catalyst to his fate, provided by Cornelius Agrippa, shows that Victor did not
stop to ask for advice to begin with, foreshadowing his fate of illiteracy. Victor goes on to
point fingers at his father by stating If instead of this remark, my father has taken the
pains to explain It is even possible, that the train of my ideas would never have
received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. Victor was right, but, he did not ask any
questions on the matter or enquire as to why his father thought Agrippa was trash. By
simply bounding with joy (Shelley, 1818, Pg.22) to his father and presenting his desire
to learn outdated philosophy, Victor displays his illiteracy by not engaging others in
common reason and asking his fathers advice. In his remarkably secluded (Shelley,
1818, Pg.27) life at Ingolstadt University, Victor rejects the outright advice of one
professor to ignore his own hubris, set by an outdated philosophy, by saying I had a
contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy and I could not consent to hear that

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little conceited fellow deliver sentences out of a pulpit. (Shelley, 1818, Pg.28) Only out
of pure spite and necessity to advance does Victor redirect his chimeras of boundless
grandeur (Shelley, 1818, Pg.28) towards the application of real sciences. When Victor
became capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter he doubted at first
whether I [Victor] should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler
organization (Shelley, 1818, Pg.32). Doubt that is quickly overthrown by imagination
and not once presented as a moral question to which he should consult with another
human about. Furthermore, Victor sits back and does not inform anyone of his mistake or
the fact that it was the creature that killed William and not Justine- I had no fear,
therefore, that any circumstantial evidence could be brought forward strong enough to
convict her; and, in this assurance, I calmed myself. (Shelley, 1818, Pg.53) The same
repeated pattern seems to emerge from Victor where he doesnt ask anyone for help and
thus no one is informed of imminent danger that ends up killing everyone. Shelley
portrays Victors illiteracy as a form of ignorance and makes an example of his character.
He tampers with nature without having common reason to aid him in his endeavors and
thus gets punished. If Victor was modest in his actions and asked for advice the entire
issue could have been avoided.
Despite having heard Victors mistakes, Robert Walton continues to be illiterate
throughout the entirety of the novel. One may argue that Walton found a friend in Victor
and therefore is now literate because he seeks common reason through the help of
Frankenstein. This, however, is not the case because not only is Victor not Waltons
friend, but also Victors narrative should be enough to display human limits as well as his

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untrustworthy nature. Victor says himself, Can any man be to me as Clerval was They
are dead; and but one feeling in such a solitude can persuade me to preserve my life
(Shelley, 1818, Pg.153) indicating that even after being saved by Walton and trusting
Walton with his life story, Victor doesnt consider Walton to be his friend. This means
that Victor is acting out his one feeling and not caring for the well being of others in the
process. Though Victor says, learn my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own
(Shelly, 1818, Pg.151), he clearly pushes the entire ship to be more than men (Shelly,
1818, Pg.155) and risks all of their lives only in the pursuit of selfish revenge upon the
creature. From this, the reader can glean that literacy and common reason can only be
achieved if the well being of the collective is the main goal, not selfish ambitions. If
Walton were to follow the advice of Victor, due to the fact that Victor is not looking out
for the common good, he would have truly been illiterate because he cannot see that
Victor is only looking out for himself and not the well being of everyone. Undeterred by
Victors horror story of illiterate tragedy, Walton says how he would rather die, than
return shamefully and how a potential mutiny of cowardice and indecision (Shelley,
1818, Pg.155) is the only reason why he turned around. Why then did Walton understand
his illiteracy on the sea voyage and not prior to embarking on his trip to the North Pole?
He could have just asked his sister, or whomever, if they thought it was a good idea to
plunge into unknown danger and, as he probably knows, they would have said to not set
sail. Therefore, it can be implied that Walton is just as ignorant as Victor because neither
of them consult anyone before embarking on their journeys. This ignorance is important
because it displays a mode of thinking that should, according to Shelley, be avoided. By

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implementing the framework of Walton as a viewer upon Victors narrative, Shelley flirts
with the fourth wall between fiction and the reader by posing the challenge: Walton
couldnt become literate through Victors tragedy, can you?
Shelley critiques Kants idea of enlightenment through the display of failure and
tragedy of the main characters by augmenting their illiteracy within the story. Kant says
it is easy to be immature! and actually dangerous (Kant, 1784, Pg.54) to try and
emerge from immaturity. Mary Shelley counters this enlightened philosophy by asserting
that it is actually dangerous to make decisions without the aid of others; that a single
mind may be powerful, but dangerous if left unchecked. Just the form in which each
writer presents their arguments speaks volumes towards their modes of thinking and
appeal to the masses. Kant is extremely structured and rigid within an essay that lends to
its audience, much like its argument, nothing but solid logic. On the other hand Shelleys
strong, emotional, literary mimics the reaction held by Romantic thinkers to the cold and
calculated reason of the enlightenment. (Kareem, lecture 10) It is important to
contextualize this schism because it shows that Shelleys reaction is not an isolated
incident, but rather a movement that was brought about to reject the notion that humans
are rational monsters that need nothing but reason. Shelley employs the idea of illiteracy
as a message to the enlightened thinkers and her readers that man is a collective that
breaths not only reason but also art and beauty upon the world; mankinds thoughts
should not be isolated.

WorkCited
Shelley,Mary.Frankenstein.Seconded.J.PaulHunter.Print.
Kant,Immanuel.AnAnswertotheQuestion:'WhatIsEnlightenment?'Print.
Kareem,Sarah."FrankensteinLecture."LosAngeles.1Dec.2015.Lecture.