The Modern Prometheus
The story of Frankenstein chronicles a young scientist’s ventures into the unknown. Since man’s earliest pursuit of the scientific arts, science has proven itself to be a blessing. Brilliant scientists have discovered the secrets to ensuring health and comfort to the masses. Countless souls have been saved from untimely death. Improvements in technology have allowed humanity to cater to its basic survival needs more easily and focus its energy on developing culture. Science holds the power to ensure the survival of the human race, but such a great power also has the capability to condemn mankind. Science has brought forth weapons that can take millions of lives at once. With the advent of artificial compounds, many have died of poisonings and cancers before the creations are taken off the market. In her narrative, Frankenstein, Mary Shelly illustrates the hazards the unknown presents when combined with the natural tendencies of man. Victor Frankenstein’s tragic journey into science is a consequence of his basic human nature. His ambition causes him to disregard his respect for science’s mysteries, and his negligence creates a monster that reaps havoc on his life and the lives of those around him.
As a child, Victor had the opportunity to read the works of Cornelius Agrippa, an archaic natural philosopher whose findings were declared invalid rubbish. He is fascinated by the subject, and begins to pursue further knowledge. His elders discouraged his readings of the works of the old alchemists, though they never explained why. After witnessing lightning striking a tree outside his home, Victor was temporarily convinced of the alchemists’ errors. The oppression of such ideas, however, ultimately stirred young Victor’s curiosity, and he once again began furiously pursuing his interest.
Throughout her work, Mary Shelly uses language to prepare the reader for her argument. While informing the reader of Victor’s abandonment of his former studies, she foreshadows events yet to come. On the subject of the lightning strike, Shelly writes, “It was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction” (Shelly Ch. 2). The passage gives the reader a feeling of impending doom, and supports Shelly’s belief that unknown is perilous.
Victor eventually attends the University of Ingolstadt in Geneva. Once again, he is confronted about the inaccuracy of the works he has been studying. In a one-on-one meeting, a university professor declared Victor’s inquiries a waste of time. Following his meeting and subsequent chemistry lecture, Victor forsakes his pursuit of occult natural philosophy in favor of the actual sciences.
Victor, driven by his own ambition and the grief over the recent passing of his mother, becomes enamored with the study of life itself. He studies the composition of the body and its natural decay. Victor achieved a level of mastery over the science, and secretly sets out on a new quest. He seeks to discover how to create life. Alone in his apartment, Victor begins to work on his new task. He sews together parts of deceased bodies into one superhuman creation, while further isolating himself from society. His complexion worsens, and he appears pale and sickly.
Once again, Shelly uses language to argue her point. As her main character labors over his project, Mary Shelly writes, “I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain” (Shelly Ch. 4). Victor, unlike the average man, begins to see death as beautiful. Mary Shelly gruesomely describes Victor’s perverted mindset to prove to the reader that his fervent pursuit of the unknown terrifyingly warped his personality. Victor’s blind ambition turned him into a monster.
Victor Frankenstein completes his work, and is immediately embarrassed by it. He believes he made a mistake, but he does not take responsibility for it. Rather than attempting to learn about his new creation, he neglects it and tries to forget its existence. The Frankenstein monster remains a mystery to Victor. It begins to terrorize the main character’s friends and family. Eventually Victor confronts his creation and learns about its life, nature, and experiences, though he still denies it a place in his life. By the time he takes responsibility for his actions, Victor is too late to stop the chain of events he has set in motion. His life is in shambles and tragically becomes worse and worse as the monster hurts and kills those close to him.
Mary Shelly uses the monster as the pinnacle of her argument. The creature is the novel’s symbol of the unknown. It was created by man’s blind footsteps into the unfamiliar, and it leaves a trail of death and destruction in its wake. The monster harasses Victor throughout the entire novel, and ultimately kills Victor’s new bride.
The story of Victor Frankenstein is Mary Shelly’s warning to her contemporaries and future generations. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were full of scientific and technological advancement. Engineers and scientists of Shelly’s era experimented with electricity, mechanical automation, steam power, and controversial medical procedures. Her novel’s message cautions readers not to allow their ambition to overshadow their respect for the hazards of the unknown.
Shelly’s warning is still relevant today. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen technology progress at an unprecedented rate. Computer technology seems to have limitless potential, and is becoming exponentially more prevalent in everyday life. Artificial Intelligence programs (AIs) such as Siri can understand human speech, and respond accordingly. AIs make their owners’ everyday lives easier, but as the technology is further developed, programmers should take care to make sure computers don’t become dangerous to society. Like Shelly’s Frankenstein monster, artificially created machines that are stronger than humans and can think for themselves could be capable of causing serious harm to society. Modern science fiction presents Mary Shelly’s argument in a futuristic package through the film, “2001:A Space Oddessy.” After shutting down a space ship and trying to kill the crew, Supercomputer HAL 9000 says, “I’m afraid I’m losing my mind. I can feel it. I can feel it,” as it itself is being shut down by a crewmember. This sort of regret expressed by a machine is not only unsettling, but also probable in the future. The nature of man will likely one day be so accurately described in code that AIs will actually be able to feel the same sensations and emotions humans feel. Such a development could pose a risk to the human race. AIs with reasoning abilities could see humans as a threat to their own existence and suddenly become competitors to the human race. The metal machines would be both stronger and smarter than humans, and could endanger large portions of society the same way Shelly’s creature does.
Through Frankenstein, Mary Shelly expresses her concern about the dangers of the unknown. She warns both her generation and those of the future to tread cautiously into the unexplored. Like the mayhem Victor’s negligence caused both on him and those around him, a lack of respect for the unfamiliar could lead to an uncontrollable experiment or piece of technology capable of devastating entire populations. Shelly’s message seeks to prevent a recipe for disaster scenario.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text. Oxford: Oxford
"2001: A Space Odyssey. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, and Arthur C. Clarke. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1968. Motion Picture."
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