One of Frankenstein's central themes is knowledge and the consequences of its pursuit. In the course of Victor Frankenstein's transgression of what is thought, by many, to be one of nature's inviolable laws, several epistemological questions are raised, many of which are of especial moment given today's debates about artificial intelligence. Frankenstein's story is often regarded as a cautionary tale both to Robert Walton, who dictates it and learns thence of the dangerous of pursuing certain kinds of knowledge, and, perhaps most importantly, to the general reader, who is encouraged to draw the same lesson. Victor's ultimately fatal desire to "pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation." (Shelley 202) Indeed, it is this desire that leaves Victor bereft of all he holds dear.
It is Victor Frankenstein's desire to know, to acquire scientific knowledge no matter what the costs or consequences--and, later, his hatred of his creation--that result in the troubles, challenges, and losses with which he is constantly met. He is heavily scientistic, meaning that he believes science, or "natural philosophy" as it was called in this age, is the sole path to knowledge. Knowledge, to him, is thus quantifiable and strictly empirical. He often conceives of the difference between knowledge and ignorance as the difference between dark and light. He remarks, for instance, that "[l]ife and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world." (Shelley 34) Nor does he fail to grasp the connection between his desired act of creation and the godliness with which such creation is usually associated. He relishes in the possibility that "[a] new species would bless [him] as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to [him]." (Shelley 34)
Importantly, the dangers of the unrestrained pursuit of knowledge are made clear early on. Walton relays in a letter Frankenstein's words of caution. "You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did," says Frankenstein, "and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been." (Shelley 16) Interestingly, this is not an outright condemnation of pursuits of scientific knowledge. Frankenstein seems implicitly, in wishing as much, to recognize that, while the knowledge he pursued caused his downfall, it need not cause someone else's. He hopes that his story "enlarges [Walton's] faculties and understanding." (Shelley 16) Knowledge, then, is distinguished from "understanding," which here seems fuller and more beneficial than dry, scientific knowledge. Also of significance is Frankenstein's request that Walton, for the sake of his story, abandon the very scientific standards responsible for his predicament. "You will hear of powers and occurrences," he says, "such as you have been accustomed to believe impossible: but I do not doubt that my tale conveys in its series internal evidence of the truth of the events of which it is composed." (Shelley 16) In other words, Frankenstein seems to say, "Take my word for it." This request is hardly the kind one would expect from someone as thoroughly knowledgeable about science (and, by extension, philosophy) as Frankenstein. He seems here to understand that strict adherence to scientific standards of evidence undercuts the veracity of his tale--or worse, disproves it entirely. If he is to be believed, belief must be suspended. Rational inquiry of the sort in which he regularly engaged would seem to render his story impossible. Indeed, he seems even to imply that such a critical mentality is wholly unnecessary, for we may know the truth of his tale by the "internal evidence" provided for it.
It is not long before the monster is acquainted with the double-edged nature of knowledge, with its capacity to both delight and dismay. In the course of his melancholy contemplations on the nature of humankind and his place in it (or lack thereof), he finds himself unable to "describe ... the agony that these reflections inflicted upon [him]; [he] tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge." (Shelley 90) His happiness, which persisted in oblivion, perished with his ignorance upon his acquisition of knowledge. "Oh," he agonizes, "that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!" (Shelley 90) This may be regarded as a more eloquent voicing of that old adage: ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is a space that affords protection from harsh and unsavory truths. To exit that space is to relinquish its protection for good, for barring exceptional circumstances (amnesia, psychosis, etc.), there may be no return to it. A return to that safe haven is what Frankenstein desires more than anything; for, aside from death, only ignorance could prevent the pain he endures. "Of what a strange nature is knowledge!" he exclaims. "It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling..." (Shelley 90) This regret mirrors, en miniature, that of Frankenstein. Both experience the deep sorrow that so often attends the acquisition of knowledge. Only, while Frankenstein wished to have the power to create life, his monster wishes to have the power to live--to live as and among other members of humankind. Victor Frankenstein's knowledge enables him to create life; the monster's knowledge renders his nearly unendurable. The monster, given his woeful experience with scientific knowledge, is acquainted far earlier with its limitations and drawbacks.
Having been accused of the murder of Henry Clerval, Frankenstein is presented with even more evidence of the danger of pursuing knowledge in the way that he has. He is now made to pay indirectly for the actions of his creature, for whom he is ultimately responsible. Frankenstein is scarcely able to relate this portion of the story without suffering a great deal of emotional turmoil. "The trial," he recalls, "the presence of the magistrate and witnesses, passed like a dream from my memory, when I saw the lifeless form of Henry Clerval stretched before me. I gasped for breath; and, throwing myself on the body, I exclaimed, 'Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life?'" (Shelley 138) He here acknowledges as forcefully and straightforwardly as ever the harm caused by his "murderous machinations", a term that is itself of great significance. For whereas he was once inclined to consider the attainment of his aims as a praiseworthy triumph for humankind, he is now disillusioned and intensely melancholic. Scientific knowledge represented, at one point, the primary motivation of his existence. But, in the midst of his legal troubles, after being thrown in prison, he regards himself as "doomed to live," (Shelley 139) and it is scientific knowledge that, in endowing his life with meaning, deprived it of joy and imbued it with sorrow and gloom. Compounding these misfortunes is the fact that this is one of Frankenstein's several losses throughout the novel which may be attributed to his monstrous creation. Frankenstein pays for his mistakes many times over in the course of his tale, and so its admonition, its warning against the vice that is unchecked ambition, is multiply reinforced. Frankenstein, in biting the proverbial fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge, has begun himself on a downward spiral from which he cannot recover. The death of his friend is but another sad stop on his road to perdition.
Impact in/for Frankenstein
The dangers of the overreach of the rational, of the relentless, morally indifferent pursuit of scientific knowledge are displayed vividly in Shelley's novel. What is thought at first to have the potential to reap untold benefits for humankind, and to garner great praise for Frankenstein, ends in tragedy and benefits none. The narrative, considered in its entirety, is rightly regarded as a parable that admonishes against unchecked scientific advance. Humans are not fit to create humans as Frankenstein had; and we transgress the boundaries of the natural not only at our own peril, but to the peril of those whom we cherish most deeply. Humankind is too fickle, too vicious, too depraved to be trusted with so weighty a task as the creation of new life. Such a powerful act is, if the moral of this novel is to be believed, best left to Nature, and, perhaps, to God. Like Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, Frankenstein quickly discovers that the price at which scientific knowledge is had far exceeds any benefits it is able to confer. The monster is the figure through which this argument finds eloquent and engaging expression. He and the deaths that he causes, the deep sorrow and neglect to which he is subjected, his misery, all is the result of one man's excessive ambition. The narrative trajectory of the monster reinforces this message. Just as Frankenstein's attainment of knowledge led to the creation of a monster and thus to the loss of life, so did the knowledge gained by the monster lead inevitably to unhappiness. As Frankenstein's intellect ascends to greater and greater heights, so do his life, his relationships, and, ultimately, his well-being descend to lower and lower depths. Thus, attainment of knowledge and well-being are inversely proportional. Nature's deepest mysteries, we may conclude, are best left unsolved.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.