The Controlling Force of Knowledge (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Book Review)
Society is structured around the quest for knowledge, and success is measured by it. Who will achieve the highest IQ? Who can find various cures to foreign diseases? Who is able to explore the unknown, to alter DNA sequences? These types of questions present themselves time and time again in the world, driving individuals to seek answers that, at times, may be better off left alone. Risks are often brushed aside and the pursuit for understanding takes over one’s judgement. This is what occurs in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Victor Frankenstein longs to be known for his intellectual achievements, leading him down a harsh road as he creates a monster, abandons it, and has to face the consequences. Through Victor’s overwhelming guilt, the Creature’s immense pain, and Robert Walton’s recklessness, Shelley depicts knowledge as blinding and destructive.
As Victor works to restore life to the dead, his craving for knowledge narrows his perspective and overwhelms him with pain. While working on his creation he finds himself with tunnel vision, focused solely on the task at hand as he disregards everything around him: “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay. . . a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (50). Victor is so fixated on his goal of reanimation that all else becomes unimportant; his narrowmindedness guides him to deny the consequences surrounding him. He neglects to consider the harm he is doing in his scientific trials but, beyond that, neglects to consider something as simple as his tangible physical health. This “frantic impulse” of having to unlock his targeted knowledge dilutes his reasoning and destroys his wellbeing. Victor is not only physically affected after his interactions with knowledge. His conscious must also deal with the overwhelming second-hand guilt of the crimes his creature has committed. Justine Moritz was the innocent individual accused of killing a boy that was in reality slaughtered by the Creature. Victor knows this, and during the trial he describes that “During the whole of this wretched mockery of justice [he] suffered living torture. It was to be decided whether the result of [his] curiosity and lawless devices would cause the death of two of [his] fellow beings: one a smiling babe full of innocence and joy, the other far more dreadfully murdered” (83). Victor is suffering, clearly in pain, because he is only now grasping how blinding his desire for intellect was. He feels like a monster himself despite the lack of crimes he has committed, because he constructed the Creature without considering the consequences. Now not only has his young brother died, but now an innocent girl’s life will come to an end after she is wrongfully found guilty for his murder. This guilt builds up, becoming extreme enough to bring Victor into a deep depression that devours his life for good. Knowledge proved to catapult Victor into a pit of shameful despair after narrowing his perspective.
The Creature finds himself in overbearing pain because of the situations knowledge puts him in. While living by himself in a shack, the monster stumbles upon the only three books he has ever encountered in his life. He attempts to understand his emotions after reading the novels, explaining, “I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings, that sometimes raised me to ecstasy, but more frequently sunk me into the lowest dejection” (141). The monster is struck by the amount of feeling these works of literature have given him. He describes being raised “to ecstasy”, an extreme feeling of euphoric joy and delight, which is an intentional decision by Shelley. This thrill is an addictive drug, proving just how dangerous knowledge is. People become obsessed with expanding their minds, constantly chasing progress to the point of insanity. The Creature is only truly able to realize the power of knowledge after experiencing it firsthand through literature. He then continues to speak about the books bringing him to a painful place of loneliness. He’s able to see the joy of sharing a life with others but comes to a realization that he will forever be alone. Victor gave him a repulsive exterior in pursuit of superiority, blind to how the creature’s life would be. Knowledge was what drove Victor to create the monster and has viciously put him in this very pit of solitude. It ultimately destroyed any hope of the creature’s happiness. The Creature discovers a similar ache earlier in the book as he observes a happy family: “He raised her and smiled with such kindness and affection that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced” (115).