Tuesdays with Morry

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus can be interpreted as a chilling warning of the dangers of scientific overreaching and ambition. Mary Shelley was already aware of the works of scientists such as Erasmus Darwin and was being influenced by writers such as Byron when, at “the age of nineteen, she achieved the quietly astonishing feat of looking beyond them and creating a lasting symbol of the perils of scientific Prometheanism” (Joseph, 1998, p, xiii). The fact that Shelley parallels her story of Frankenstein with the myth of Prometheus is interesting and gives an immediate insight into the extent of criticism she bestows on Victor Frankenstein’s scientific ambition. In one version of the Prometheus myth (Prometheus Pyprphoros) he brought down fire from the sun to succour mankind, and was then punished by being chained up with an eagle feasting on his liver in a perpetual cycle. In another version (Prometheus Plasticator) he animated a man from clay in an act of usurping God. The undoing of Frankenstein can be taken as a metaphor for either version and is key to understanding that as Shelley orchestrates Victor’s downfall she is presenting his actions as a warning of what horrors blind scientific ambition can wreak upon mankind.

Many people who have done despicable deeds in history would seek to blame, or at least offer by way of explanation, terrible things that may have occurred in their childhoods. Shelley is sure in the case of Frankenstein to spell out clearly that this is not applicable in this case. As Victor himself explains to Robert Walton, “No human being could have possessed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed with the very spirit of kindness and indulgence” (Shelley, 1998, p, 37). Shelly paints the young Frankenstein as having a charmed upbringing, and thus invites the reader to look for other reasons that motivate him to make the choices that he makes.

We soon learn that Victor is an extremely curious and motivated individual who holds a particular fascination in the inner workings and secrets of the world around him. He remarks to Walton in recollection of this time, “The world to me was a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations that I can remember” (Shelley, 1998, p, 36). At this point Victor’s disposition is of a normal, although extremely bright, young man, yet Shelley is building the momentum, and layer by layer, Victor’s interests are starting to evolve into what will later become a rabid obsession. Frankenstein talks of his overwhelming desire to learn and admits to Walton that “my temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement” (Shelley, 1998, p, 37), leaving the reader realising that, although Victor resides in an idyllic family setting with beauty all around him, there is a powerful mechanism deep within that is ultimately his driving force.

Later, Victor becomes fascinated with alchemists such as Cornelius Agrippa, with hindsight, perhaps his father would of done more than dismiss their works as ‘sad trash’, as this could be what aroused the young Frankenstein even further, and furnished him with interests that eschewed the direction in which he would later take his newly acquired scientific knowledge. He says himself that if his father had offered an adequate explanation of why this reading matter was no longer deemed relevant “it is even possible, that the train of my ideas would never of received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin” (Shelley, 1998, p, 39).

Herein lies Frankenstein’s tragic flaw, the unquenchable thirst for knowledge without the strength of character or maturity to balance it.

From this point in, Shelley completes the jigsaw that is Victor’s psyche. When he happens to witness a lightning storm that destroys a tree before his very eyes, rather conveniently, there is a man of...
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