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Theme of Knowledge in Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Theme of Knowledge in Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

admin / December 21, 2018

Published in 1818 (Mellor 05), Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus is a gothic novel written by Mary Shelley. The novel incorporates aspects of romance with some aspects of horror which is depicted by the character of the monster (Mellor 10).

Mary Shelley wrote the novel at a time when the world was changing very fast in all spheres that are in agriculture, transport industry and technological developments among others. It was the era of industrial Revolution and this era saw the world population increase and people started to earn more.

Coupled with the changes that were occurring in the world due to industrialization, people’s living standards started to improve and this also produced some effects to people’s culture.

The novel therefore was a clear reflection of what some of these advancements that were being invented during the industrial revolution would bring to the human race and perhaps act as a warning to people who were in pursuit of knowledge and inventions, to think of the consequences of their inventions before they brought harm to the human race (Mellor 17).

The milieu in which the novel, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus is situated served as a warning to people that the technological developments brought about by the quest for knowledge (Rauch 67) could bring about the very threat to human existence and who are we to question Mary Shelley’s warning.

Since the onset of industrialization, people have continued to talk about population increase to the extent of constraining our natural resources, global warning, pollution from factories and ethical issues related to technological advancements in the study of human beings for instance human cloning.

It therefore should not be a surprise the way Mary Shelley portrays the theme of dangerous knowledge with so much negativity in the novel and also through the way Frankenstein’s monster turned out to be hideous just like the hideous outfit mother earth wears of polluted environment (Stableford 35), lack of ethics to humans, among others due to advancement in the field of knowledge and man wanting to explore fields that are beyond his limit.

To bring out the theme of dangerous knowledge quiet clearly in the novel, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus, we can first of all analyze the symbolic title of the novel. Borrowing the word Prometheus from Greek ancient stories, Prometheus was known to be very intelligent and accredited with shedding light to mankind through stealing fire which was hidden from humans by Zeus (god).

Through this act of Prometheus, man was able to cook using the fire and became civilized. Perhaps Mary Shelley inclusion of Prometheus in the title of the novel had a deeper meaning? Perhaps she wanted to illustrate how through Prometheus’s intelligence of stealing fire from Zeus, mankind had been able to do bad and good things with the fire for instance cook and use the fire to sharpen iron tools and thereby kill.

For whatever reasons she gave the novel the title, The Modern Prometheus, it has great similarities with the ancient Greek legends of Prometheus in relation to dangerous knowledge.

Therefore, the theme of dangerous knowledge flows out throughout the novel that is from the first pages of the novel to when Frankenstein would die before he is able to kill his own creation. The creature eventually destroys itself through committing suicide (Shelley 55).

Prometheus can therefore be likened to Frankenstein for Prometheus did the evil of stealing the fire due to his intelligence and Frankenstein created the monster as a result of pursuit of dangerous knowledge which brought sadness through the way it killed people.

To briefly recap the story, Frankenstein recounted to Robert Walton how he had been obsessed with science and created the giant image that Walton had seen though not knowing that it was a monster (Stableford 40). Frankenstein created the monster while he had hoped to create human life (Freedman 100).

After he was through with the creation, Frankenstein was not pleased by his creation (Freedman 89) for the monster turned out to be ugly and he abandoned the monster. The monster becomes bitter for being left by his creator and therefore seeks to revenge through killing the people who are close to Frankenstein. It is prominent human beings may use their knowledge and come up with invention which they would not be happy about later on.

The monster murders William, and Justine who is implicated in the murder of William dies in the process; Clerval also becomes a victim of the monster quest for revenge on his creator and is murdered when the monster sees Frankenstein destroy his female companion whom he had agreed to create for him.

Frankenstein like Justine is also implicated in the murder of Clerval for the body of Clerval was found on Irish Beach where Frankenstein was. As if the monster had not done enough damage, he also murders Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s wife and this shocks Frankenstein’s father who also dies.

The main character Frankenstein has a passion for science and it is this passion that propels him to acquire knowledge which later on becomes dangerous not only to him but to even his family and friends (Holmes 15). From the novel, Mary Shelley depicts Frankenstein as a person who is obsessed with science and what science could do to mankind if utilized (Freedman 69).

In the novel, Frankenstein therefore sees the world around him through the eyes of science and the reason why he created the monster. The danger in obsession with acquiring knowledge eventually turns tragic for Frankenstein when his own creation leads him to his own death (Rauch 60).

This is another sign that quest for knowledge that allows humankind to do things which are beyond his/her control can result to. It also shows that there is no point of man performing the role of God for there are some things that are beyond human understanding.

The theme of dangerous knowledge is first encountered in the first pages of the novel when Captain Robert Walton is exploring the North Pole in search of scientific facts that can make him famous and also help him increase his nest of friends through his scientific discoveries which he hopes to find (Holmes 25).

It is not in vain to note that Captain Robert Walton also was in pursuit of knowledge when he saw Frankenstein. It is also satirical to note that at that time Robert Walton was exploring the North Pole, he finds Victor Frankenstein, a victim of dangerous knowledge. Victor Frankenstein when found by Captain Robert Walton narrates his experiences to the Captain (Shelley 9).

At the beginning of his narration, Frankenstein first cautions Robert Walton against pursuing knowledge to heights that are beyond limit (Shelley 3). Therefore Captain Robert Walton is warned of his pursuit of knowledge, of whether his search for scientific knowledge was going to bring him shame and regret like it had brought Frankenstein or acquaintance and recognition like he was hoping to get.

“Lean from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how happier the man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 53).

The two characters, Frankenstein and Captain Robert Walton, share the drive for acquiring knowledge though Frankenstein had gone a little further and created the monster.

On the contrary, we cannot also dismiss Robert Walton, for his desire and quest for knowledge made him sail through the North Pole. The North Pole is a region that is mostly covered by ice and few explorers have managed to explore the whole of the region. It is a region that most explorers who set up to explore always find themselves turning back to the south lest they risk getting lost.

No explorer can be said to have explored the North Pole successfully even in the present day for there are some areas which are unreachable. However, Robert Walton (Holmes 28) is ambitious in exploring the dangerous place so that he could only acquire scientific facts.

What kind of drive would make a man that obsessed with facts if not the drive for dangerous knowledge (Stableford 14)? He eventually risk his life for he ends up trapped in the North Pole and luckily for him, finds Frankenstein who warns him of his pursuit of dangerous knowledge and they head back south.

Drawing from my own conclusion, Robert learns from Frankenstein that pursuit for knowledge can be dangerous and therefore turns back.

The novels is in the context of industrial revolution and therefore caution to the explorers and a cry from Mary Shelley that there should be more cautious when dealing with the technological advancements and inventions in the industrial revolution era brought about by the desire of man to test beyond his limits thereby gaining recognition.

That it would have been better to head back like Walton did than to try and reverse the situation when it’s already too late like in the case of Frankenstein.

The theme of knowledge relates well with the two prominent people who are in search of knowledge in the novel. Both Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton had the passion for dangerous knowledge but for self gain.

To Frankenstein, knowledge was to help him discover things that were beyond humans and likewise for Captain Robert Walton, he was in pursuit of knowledge so he could only gain recognition among his friends. Therefore, the characters only use the knowledge they have for their own individual benefits as illustrated in the novel.

The character of the monster most definitely helps us to decipher the theme of dangerous knowledge. When the monster is talking about itself, a reader can be convinced beyond doubt that the creature is harmless and thus be supportive with it. Even at the early stages after its creation, the creature is harmless and only wanted affection. But as time goes by, the creature even learns how to read, becomes hostile to the humans more so his creator.

The theme of dangerous knowledge as depicted in the character of the monster is that people tend to endeavor in inventions and they are very passionate about them for these inventions are deemed to help them and not to destroy them (Rosenburg 4). Only when time elapses that we see the negative effects created by the consequences brought about by our endeavors of dangerous knowledge (Rosenburg 4).

The society is depicted by Frankenstein’s family and friends and collectively they are used in the novel to show how the desire for dangerous knowledge can influence the society negatively. The society as a whole is affected by the individual’s selfish ambitions for knowledge.

For instance, William, Frankenstein’s father, Clerval and Elizabeth all die as a result of Frankenstein’s pursuit of dangerous knowledge. This is symbolic in that, only few people are in hunt of dangerous knowledge but their inventions affect the whole society.

From the above analysis, it is evident that the theme of dangerous knowledge is approached with so much caution in the novel, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus. Starting with the main character; Frankenstein, who is ashamed of how hideous his creation turned out to be and he therefore abandoned it.

“A flash of lightning illuminated the object and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy demon whom I had given life” (Shelley 34).

The fear of pursuing knowledge to heights that are dangerous is further propelled by the damage that the monster caused, that is, the way the monster ended up killing Frankenstein’s close friends and family members in pursuit of revenge.

Perhaps while narrating to the Captain his story, Frankenstein wanted to caution Captain Robert of the consequences of pursuing knowledge while not thinking of the consequences of such scientific discoveries.

We can also draw this conclusion from the fact that when Frankenstein’s monster demanded that Frankenstein create a female companion for him, Frankenstein first agreed but when he sat and thought of what two monsters could do to the human race if only one of them had so far killed his brother and set on fire the De Lacey’s chalet, Frankenstein eventually destroyed the female companion he was creating which of course angered the monster more.

Technological advancement which is brought about by Frankenstein’s pursuit of knowledge to the level that the knowledge becomes dangerous is portrayed as evil through the hideous monster.

The theme of dangerous knowledge in the novel also brings to our attention of the reaction of Frankenstein on finding out the monster was out to revenge on him. Frankenstein preferred to hide from the monster and eventually wanted to kill it after it had killed his family members and friends.

Should mankind therefore fear knowing too much to the extent that he does not put into use the knowledge he acquires to come up with new creations? In the novel, the monster wanted to talk with Frankenstein but it is Frankenstein who is reluctant to negotiate with the monster.

However, after careful thought and a lot of convincing by the monster, Frankenstein agreed to create a female companion so that the two monsters would disappear (Levine 72). Unfortunately, Frankenstein acting on second thoughts destroys the female creature.

This is an illustration that knowledge does not have to be too dangerous. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that the monster was willing to disappear from mankind only if it had a female companion so that it would not feel lonely and would live a normal life just like humans (Levine 72).

This is symbolic in that in as much as the theme of dangerous knowledge is prominent in the novel, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus, knowledge does not have to be dangerous and human beings do not have to fear discovering such creations as Frankenstein’s monster (Levine 72).

Its only takes responsibility with dealing with the consequences of advancements brought about by dangerous knowledge rather than running away from our own actions.

“The world was to me a secret which I desired” (Shelley 36). Why then would Frankenstein fail to adore his creativity of bringing a creature to life? After his creation, Frankenstein fails to understand what he has done and therefore his life stops to have any meaning for with all the time he spent creating the monster, he had to spend more time devising ways in which he could destroy his creation.

How then is this pursuit of dangerous knowledge fulfilling? This is a clear pointer that stretching our ambitious to heights that we cannot cope with will bring disillusionments. This is the dangerous knowledge Mary Shelley talks about in the novel, the knowledge which makes our lives meaningless rather than useful.

To analyze the situation in real life position, many scientists spend their time in the laboratories coming up with new inventions that eventually destroy the existence of humans (Idiss 37). For instance, why would man invent green houses which have adverse effects on the environment and spend equal efforts in curbing these negative effects of green houses on the environment?

To say Mary Shelley had an insight of what the future would look like if man continued to pursue his quest for dangerous knowledge would be to understate her for she clearly illustrated the concept in her novel, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus.

The theme of knowledge as portrayed in the novel, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley brings to our attention the knowledge that society does not accept, that is dangerous knowledge (Shelley 5). By terming the pursuit of knowledge that surpasses human understanding as dangerous, Mary Shelley is referring to that knowledge that is of self gain (Shelley 13).

For instance, Victor Frankenstein created a monster by collecting bones and using science to bring the monster into life. He brought forth a creature that society could not accept as one of its own, as a human being and therefore Mary Shelley’s implication of dangerous knowledge in the novel (Shelley 5).

A classic novel that portrays themes which are even recent in the 21th century despite the novel being written in 1818 is my ultimate conclusion. Nanotechnology, genetics, chemical engineering, space engineering, human cloning and the list is endless for what we human beings are trying to achieve through science. One is left to wonder whether science equates to the answer of all the problems that human kind experiences (O’Flinn 59).

Whether, it is in the reproduction process, science has taken its toll in solving the problems through test tube babies and cloning or in producing food to sustain the world population (O’Flinn 59), it is the scientific knowledge that humankind is making use of to solve this problems for instance the genetically modified foods (Idiss 57).

Do those people who come up with such scientific developments stop for a minute and think of the consequences before their technological advancements are put to test? Or do they first put the technological inventions to test and face the consequences later? Little is done to research on the negative effects of science and it’s only when there are adverse effects that certain discoveries are deemed as not good (O’Flinn 59).

For instance, during the industrial revolution, people were excited at the recent developments that we happening and scientists were in the mad rush of inventing and discovering new things, but if we closely look at the consequences that expansion of the industrial revolution brought to mother earth the reverse would be the better option, just like Victor Frankenstein wished to kill his creation for it brought him loneliness.

Works Cited

Freedman, Carl. “Hail Mary: On the Author of Frankenstein and the Origins of Science Fiction”. Science Fiction Studies. 2002. 60 – 144.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. 1974. London. Harper perennial. 2003.

Idiss, Brian. “On the Origin of Species. Mary Shelley”. Speculations on Speculation. Theories of Science Fiction. Ed. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria. Lanham. MD. Scarecrow, 2005.

Levine, George & U. C. Knoepflmacher. Eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Berkeley. University Press. 1974.

Mellor, Anne. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York. Methuen. 1988.

O’Flinn, Paul. “Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein”. Literature and History. 1983. 199 – 300.

Rauch, Alan. “The Monstrous Body of Knowledge in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”. Studies in Romanticism. 1995 53 – 227.

Rosenburg, Amy. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Book Review. 12th October, 2008.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1816. London. Oxford University Press. 1971.

Stableford, Brian. “Frankenstein and the Origins of Science Fiction”. Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and Its Precursors. Ed. DAVID Seed. Syracuse University Press. 1995.

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