Science, Madness, and Violence in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
The creation of life is a cautionary metaphor for the advancement of science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today, however, this type of life-generating science is commonplace. It does not take place in the laboratory of a mad scientist, but in sterile and advanced research facilities. Scientists use technology such as genetic engineering, cloning, and in vitro fertilization to alter the genomes of microorganisms, plants and animals including humans. Viewed by many as the creation of life, these advancements have had their share of moral and religious upsets. The technology revolution our society is experiencing today is not unlike the scientific revolution during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Key figures in the scientific revolution, such as Newton and Darwin, brought evidence that challenged religious principles. In result, the concern of scientific advancement was prominent throughout the Romantic Era.
Romantic writers, poets and painters voiced their criticisms of these advancements. Edgar Allan Poe reflects the anti-industrial advancements in his work “Sonnet- To Science”. Poe compares Science to a “Vulture, whose wings are dull realities” (1-4). Poe reflects his view that science is predatory, vile and devoid of creativity. John Keats, a poet and trained physician, laments how science has corrupted humanity’s sense of beauty in his poem “Lamia”. The lines “Let spear-grass and the spite thistle wage war on his temple” and “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings…” reflect his disapproval of Rationalism brought by the Scientific Revolution (230-235). William Blake, a Romantic poet and printmaker, “regarded Reason as the Devil, and Newton as its high-priest” and “proclaimed Art is the Tree of Life… Science the Tree of Death” (Raman). Blake also presented a line of prints, one of which depicted the physicist Isaac Newton Fig. 1. Newton (Blake) sitting at the bottom of the ocean and drawing with a compass. He appears entranced with focus yet completely unaware of his surroundings. The Romantics’ distrust and protest against the consequences of science was not against science itself, but against scientific metaphysics: seeing the world as a mechanism rather that an organism (Proffitt). These artistic works are criticizing the foresight of science as well as the lack of moral consideration from scientific figures.
Like other Romantic writers, Mary Shelley includes elements of knowledge, nature and existence in her novel Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, an obsessed Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein creates human life. His creation, however, becomes corrupted and murders those Frankenstein loves most: his brother, best friend, and wife. The Violence drives both Frankenstein and his Monster into irreparable madness that leads to their deaths at the end of the novel (Frankenstein). “Frankenstein not only stands out as the first modern mad chemist novel, but it is also the most radical one, because it transferred the fate of the obsessed mad alchemists to the fate of science” (Schumer).
Frankenstein not only reflects cultural anxieties of scientific ethics, but also portrays scientific exploration as detrimental to society. By attributing characteristics of insanity to Frankenstein and his monster, Shelley creates an opposing dichotomy between science and morality. Science is shown as immoral through its implication with madness. She archetypes Victor Frankenstein as a mad scientist who is driven insane because of his obsession to create human life. Ironically, portraying science in such a way is in itself damaging to society. The medieval pseudoscience that Frankenstein experiments with should not be applied to the recent advancements of the time but to outdated practices of alchemy. This is not representative of how scientists practiced medicine and science at that time period. Similarly, the Monster goes mad with vengeance because Frankenstein in unable to take responsibility for his creation. The conflict between Frankenstein and his Monster is a representation of self-destruction between the scientist and his work. Shelley also includes the death of innocence to further vilify the mad scientist.
Frankenstein is continuously shown as erratic, obsessive, and insane to perpetuate the cliché of the mad scientist. Characterizing Frankenstein as mad strips him of all credibility. In Chapter 4, Frankenstein reveals “the horrors of his secret toil” where he “dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured living the animal to animate the lifeless clay” (Frankenstein). The graphic imagery acknowledges both the macabre and immoral nature of Frankenstein’s work. He also goes into detail of his obsession with his work and how that impacts his health. Physically, he has become pale and emaciated from his confinement within the laboratory (Frankenstein). His studies have also affected his social life and mental sanity. Frankenstein neglected to stay in contact with his old friends and family and “shunned his fellow creatures as if he had been guilty of a crime” (Frankenstein). He even goes on to state that “I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines… than an artist occupied by his favorite employment” (Frankenstein). It literally states here that science is not artistic or creative, but it is oppressive in nature and sinful. These descriptions contribute to Frankenstein’s character as a mad scientist as he is a slave to his work.
Another element of a mad scientist is hubris; in this case hubris was Frankenstein’s fatal flaw. Hubris, in the sense of comparing one’s own capacity with those of the divine creator, challenges peculiarities of Christianity. It is this lack of ethics that constitutes the mad scientist (Schumer). Frankenstein’s experiments lack ethical basis; he is playing God by creating life. “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (Frankenstein). He has delusions of grandeur; he claims that his experiment will rival the natural order of life. Frankenstein’s ambition and pride peaked during his studies in Ingolstadt. “So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein- more, far more, will I achieve… I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Frankenstein). Scientific ambition is a driving force in progression; however, here it is pernicious. His hubris only exists before he creates the Monster. After the “catastrophe” his pride dissipates into regret. Because Frankenstein is characterized as mad and vain, the reader doesn’t empathize with him. This makes it easier to dehumanize scientists, separate science from morality and further criticize the Scientific Revolution.
Another character flaw of Frankenstein is that he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. Frankenstein creates life only to abandon the Monster. Frankenstein’s guilt and horror manifests into a series of catatonic fits throughout the novel. He began hallucinating after he made the Monster and then became sick with a “nervous fever which confined him for several months (Frankenstein). This scenario indicates that scientists are incapable of separating their emotions from their experiments. They also cannot control the outcome of what they create.
Creations are vulnerable to become corrupted or misused by society. In this case, Frankenstein’s Monster had innocent intentions that were corrupted because he was mistreated and abandoned. “My [The Monster’s] heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine” (Frankenstein). Through the Monster’s frame narrative, it is given that the Monster did have good intentions in the beginning. However, after he was rejected from the cottagers in the woods and shot after saving a drowning girl, the Monster fostered vengeance on humanity- Frankenstein in particular.
The Monster’s judgement becomes clouded, and he descends into madness driven by vengeance against Frankenstein. When the Monster claims “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey” he asserts his dominance (Frankenstein). This is a transition of power. The Monster has assumed the mad scientist role while Frankenstein momentarily becomes the voice of reason. Even though Frankenstein has changed his ways, the repercussions of his actions are absolute.
In the case of Frankenstein, the mad scientist does harm primarily to other people through his obsessions (Schumer). All the victims of the Monster are just indirect results from Frankenstein’s lack of morality. William’s murder and Justine’s execution are metaphorical deaths of morality and innocence. William had the innocence of a child, and Justine was innocent in both her nature and her trial. Later on, Frankenstein goes on to confess “I beheld those I loved spend vain sorrow upon the graves of William and Justine, the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts” (Frankenstein).
Clerval and Elizabeth were moral compass characters; both attempted to help Frankenstein and guide him to do what is right. “Clerval occupied himself… with the moral relations of things” and “the saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp” (Frankenstein). In both instances of murder, the Monster showed self-satisfaction toward Frankenstein. “A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer… towards the corpse” (Frankenstein). Although Frankenstein created life, his creation was taking it away. Creation through science has broken the balance of life and death.
Throughout the novel, there is on ongoing theme that ignorance is bliss, and scientific knowledge leads to madness. Shelley puts her strongest argument of this into the dying mouth of Frankenstein at the end of the novel. “Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (Frankenstein). Frankenstein is trying to convince Walton to disregard his scientific curiosities. When the novel was coming to its conclusion, Walton was at a critical point to continue his perilous expedition to the North or to turn around to safety. Frankenstein, who already experienced failure in his ambitions, continually tries to dissuade Walton from living a life dictated by knowledge. In the beginning of the novel, Frankenstein states “unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught” (Frankenstein). The intoxicating draught here is the hubris of the mad scientist. The acquisition of knowledge clouds judgement and creates hubris. The right and moral choice is to pursue tranquility and disregard ambition.
The novel is a cautionary allegory for scientific advancements in response to the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. The archetype of a mad scientist is not used for entertainment, but to criticize modern scientists and their immorality. Additionally, the novel is not a criticism of pseudoscience practices such as alchemy. Shelley differentiated between alchemy and modern chemistry studies when Frankenstein was lectured by M. Krempe. “‘I [Frankenstein] mentioned the names of my alchemists as the principal authors I had studied’ The professor stared. ‘Have you, really spent your time in studying such nonsense?’” (Frankenstein). Afterwards, Frankenstein focused most of his studies on modern chemistry studies. He used this knowledge, not alchemy to create his monster.
Frankenstein widens the gap between morality and science. Shelley effectively uses Frankenstein’s madness and the Monster’s violence to warn her readers about the detriments of scientific advancement and hubris. However, linking the pursuit of knowledge and ambition to madness can be more detrimental that the scientific advancements Romantic writers criticize so much. Despite what many believe, ethics and science are vital counterparts. Both are essential for societal progression.
Blake, William. Newton. 1795. British Library, England.
Keats, John. “Lamia” Part II. Bartleby. https://www.bartleby.com/
Poe, Allan Edgar. “Sonnet- To Science.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org
Proffitt, Edward. Science and Romanticism. The Georgia Review, 1980, pp. 55-80.
Schummer, Joachim. Historical Roots of the “Mad Scientist”: Chemists in Nineteenth-century Literature. Ambix, July 2006, pp. 99-127.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Raman, Varadaraja. Truth and Tension in Science and Religion. United States: Beech River Books, 2009. Print
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