“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”
I have not yet completed the novel so I can’t comment on Frankenstein as a whole just yet but after reading the first volume one of the many, many recurring ideas that kept resonating through the pages was related to the pursuit of knowledge.
Obviously after years of being exposed to Frankenstein through film, video games, other stories, etc. We know from the beginning that Victor Frankenstein’s experiment does not end well. Whatever is going to happen in these upcoming pages is going to end up with Victor stranded, near death, on some glaciers on the way to the North Pole where he is saved by Walton. As far as how and why this experiment failed I can’t say yet but the text of volume one certainly does seem to place a lot of the initial blame on the pursuit of knowledge itself.
In one of his first letters Walton states to us his want and his need to travel. Ever since he was a child he has slaved over books and let them fuel his imagination and desire. This is a desire that can only be satisfied by stepping onto a piece of the world that no other man has yet touched. Of course alongside all this reading and imagining we learn that Walton sacrificed a lot of friendships and relationships with other humans by spending so much time with his books, and he seems to feel that, because he’s done this, he is due for a great discovery.
“Do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?”
Walton asks his sister. He believes that devoting his entire life to his study should now come full circle and reward him with this discovery in the north pole. Walton also talks about similarities he sees between him and his lieutenant, a man of similar kindness to him but who suffers from a deep loneliness. His story also parallels to us Victor Frankenstein’s time at college where he puts aside all relationships and family matters for years while he slaves away at his studies, grave robbing, and experimentation.
In both Walton and Victor’s stories their avid pursuit of knowledge has been associated with loneliness, depression, and in Victor’s case of course the creation of something that he is immediately terrified of. Upon bringing the creature to life, Victor flees from it and when it comes to his bedside he flees his apartment entirely and doesn’t see the creature for years.
Now the science isn’t too explicit on how this creature came to be but a part of me assumes that Shelly wants us to treat the creation of the creature like a birth. Victor himself, while working on his creature, states that this creation would bless him as it’s creator, and likens himself to be the father of this creature. So if we believe that then this creature is a baby new to this world and every single action it makes is a step towards learning something about this world he’s entered. One of his first actions is to reach out to his father and in return his father abandons him for years and we can only imagine that he suffered through years of loneliness and desperation until he and Victor meet again.
So what is Shelly trying to say? As a romantic novel a criticism of the pursuit of knowledge would be vastly against type, but perhaps she is just trying to say that there is a limit to the lengths humans should go. Maybe there’s a line in Nature that we are not meant to cross. Maybe Shelly is trying to advocate for a life lived in Nature as opposed to in the study. Every time Victor feels happy in this volume is when he is surrounded by family or witnessing the beauty of nature, and whenever he’s sick or depressed or haunted Shelly makes a point to let us know that he is missing all the nature happening around him.
I can’t answer these questions yet as I’m only 1/3 of the way through the novel but I’m interested in seeing how this idea of the pursuit of knowledge continues to occur in the novel.