Frankenstein by Mary Shelley raises many questions about the extent to which the acquisition of knowledge is justifiable.The story follows three characters that, although may seem to be from vastly different circumstances, are actually all on the same journey, all highly motivated by the power that they believe can be attained by the acquisition of knowledge. This obsession for knowledge changes as the story progresses and each learns from the other. Although this passage is technically just the beginning of Frankenstein’s story, the structure of the novel makes it so that it is actually said in hindsight. In this passage, Frankenstein is recounting his story, but it is in third person, which gives him the ability to reflect on his actions. This makes the passage not only pivotal in the development of the theme of the dangers of unchecked curiosity, it also allows for an insight into the mindset of Victor Frankenstein at both the beginning and end of his story.
A prominent theme in both the passage and throughout the novel is the idea that curiosity is dangerous when it is uncontrolled. We see all three major characters go through the journey of not only acquiring knowledge but also paying for the consequences that accompany its acquisition. In the passage Frankenstein says that if his father had “taken the pains to explain that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient”(Shelley 20) instead of shunning his curiosity, he would “certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented [he] imagination…by returning with greater ardour to [his] former studies”(Shelley 21).
Concluding by saying that perhaps this simple explanation might have prevented the dangerous events that were to follow, both foreshadowing future events and reflecting on past ones, at the same time. The Creature is the best example of how curiosity could lead to danger. In his attempt to fit in and be like other humans, the creature tries to gain knowledge in hopes of being accepted and not shunned or attacked by society for his appearance. But, when his urge to gain knowledge and fit in fails and backfires, he becomes violent. Strangely we do not consider him to be a monster, we see him as more of a victim of Frankenstein’s unhealthy curiosity with the unnatural, which, in the author’s opinion was always going to lead to consequences. Another part of the story where this theme is present is with Walton and his crew, where his crew wants to turn back but Frankenstein reminds Walton that they “were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of [their] species, [their] name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honor and the benefit of mankind” (Shelley 214).
Even though the whole voyage presented so much danger and had a high likelihood of death, at that point, Walton still wants to continue just for the sake of curiosity. He does not think about the lives that could potentially be lost, but rather about the new discovery he could make. The theme continues when Walton sees the monster for the first time. Even though he knows that the request of his friend was to destroy the enemy, upon seeing “it”, he was “suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion” (Shelley 217). Walton was well aware of what was in front of him and the promises he made to his friend, but his curiosity transcended all of that. We see how their thirst for knowledge can bring them to bring them to new places, and even find what they are looking for, but it eventually leads them to danger. The structure of this passage is another important part of its message because it allows Shelly to show Frankenstein at two extremely different points in his life, at the same time. He is telling his story but, because it is said in hindsight, he also has the opportunity to reflect on his actions. He says ”I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa.
I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm” (Shelly 20). This is obviously the very start of his obsession with the natural sciences, which makes it important in its own right, but when it is added to the fact that he says “It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin.”( Shelley 21) it is made very clear that Frankenstein’s mindset has evolved. As the story progresses we start to see the evolution of Frankenstein’ mindset from pure and unadulterated to unhealthy and obsessive to downright harmful. There are certain points in the story which highlights this progression, like in chapter 3 (Shelly 23-29) where we see the curiosity slowly turn prom pure to obsessive. Here we see him go to university to learn but soon stop being content with the results. H does not accept the conclusions ‘promised by the modern professors’ (Shelley 26) and starts to desire what the masters of science have. Power. His insatiable desire to learn all the wonders of science and nature and create a new world of his own, eventually leads to his isolation from society which leads to his creation of the unnatural. This is when Frankenstein starts to doubt himself and the science that he put so much faith on. His final push towards hatred is most likely caused by the realization that he is responsible for the destruction of all of his loved ones. This passage represents both the beginning and the end of his journey, encapsulating the whole novel in just a few lines.
By combining both the development of a major theme and a major character, this passage not only connects all the other characters, it also represents the rest of the story extremely well. Frankenstein’s evolution is well represented in the structure of the passage where he is given the opportunity to reflect on his actions, which very clearly symbolizes the theme of unchecked curiosity and how leads to danger.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Dover Publications, 1994.