Plan for the day
- Frankenstein and Science
- Shelley’s Warning(s)
- Look at your Canvas Prompt
The Modern Prometheus
The second title to this novel is The Modern Prometheus. Although there is slight ambiguity here, I believe “the modern Prometheus” is Victor Frankenstein and not the monster* he created. How about a brief recap of the story of Prometheus? What is the relationship to the novel and the overall, big picture for science and technology?
*The creature isn’t really a monster as we learn. He’s a golem that wasn’t cultivated but scorned by humanity. It became what people said it was.
Captain Walton’s Adventure
As we discussed, Captain Walton parallels Victor Frankenstein’s story because Walton also sets out on a perilous endeavor that, if taken to its “logical” conclusion in light of Shelley’s warning, will destroy him. Let’s consider some of themes. As usual, we’ll avoid controversial subjects.
Let me set the stage for you. Capt. Walton wants to show he’s a big boy and can do something great. The actual “great” thing isn’t specified, but it’s most likely a generic substitution for conquest. Mary Shelley was no stranger to (proto-)feminism, and the novel comments on science, technology, and adventure being male-dominated activities. A reading on this is that Shelley wants readers to not ignore woman’s contributions to humanity.
- “A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste to the usual brutality exercised on board ship.” (Preface, Letter II, para. 4)
- “How gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought; for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.” (Preface, Letter V, para. 2)
- Victor tells Capt. Walton, “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” (Preface, Letter VI, para. 1)
- “[Victor’s mother] presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally, and looked upon Elizabeth as mine–mine to protect, love, and cherish….till death she was to be mine only.” (Chapter 1, para. 11)
- “Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition….She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home–the sublime shapes of the mountains; the changes of the seasons; tempest and calm; the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers–she found ample scope for admiration and delight.” (Chapter 2, para. 1)
- “I was capable of a more intense application, and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge….Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature…are among the earliest sensations I can remember.” (Chapter 2, para. 1)
The last two points show Victors cold, but inquisitive, scientific mind and Elizabeth’s humanistic lens to view the world. Later in the novel (end of Ch. 9 and beginning of Ch. 10), Victor :
- “The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side–the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around, spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence–and I ceased to fear, or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements.” (Chapter 9, para. 13)
- “Through the silent working of immutable laws….These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. They elevated me from all littleness of feeling; and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillised it.” (Chapter 10, para. 1)
In the presence of what he believes an omnipotent deity created, he is humbled and serene.
Thirst for Scientific Knowledge
- “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn…still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.” (Chapter 2, para. 4)
- “My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge.” (Chapter 2, para. 11)
- “I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling, like an unadept, a thousand contradictory theories, and floundering desperately in a very slough of multifarious knowledge, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning.” (Chapter 2, para. 12)
- “[Henry Clerval’s] father was a narrow-minded trader, and saw idleness and ruin in the aspirations and ambition of his son. Henry deeply felt the misfortune of being debarred from a liberal education.” He had a “firm resolve not to be chained to the miserable details of commerce.” (Chapter 3, para. 5)
Notice how Victor dismisses commerce–an allusion to practical endeavors–in favor of pure science or knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
- “M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy. He was an uncouth man, but deeply embued in the secrets of his science.” (Chapter 3, para. 9)
- “M. Krempe was a little squat man, with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favour of his pursuits.” (Chapter 3, para. 12)
- “I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” (Chapter 3, para. 12)
- M. Waldman tells Victor, “The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.” (Chapter 3, para. 17)
- M. Waldman advises Victor on his studies: “A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.” (Chapter 3, para. 18)
- “Two years passed in this manner, during which I paid no visit to Geneva….In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder….I made some discoveries in the improvement of some chemical instruments which procured me great esteem and admiration at the university.” (Chapter 4, para. 2)
At the exclusion of his family and other endeavors, Victor goes head first into his research. He’s good, but he has few peers. Why is that important to mention?
- “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.” (Chapter 4, para. 8)
- “I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created…. the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.” (Chapter 5, para. 3)
- Victor travels back home to a frightful encounter. Check out the Map.
- “During this short voyage I saw the lightnings playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures.” (Chapter 7, para. 23)
I think Mont Blanc’s a bit far away…
- “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 daemon, to whom I had given life.” (Chapter 7, para. 25)
- “I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness. I had an obscure feeling that all was not over, and that he would still commit some signal crime, which by its enormity should almost efface the recollection of the past.” (Chapter 9, para. 6)
- “I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (Chapter 10, para. 11)
- “I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (Chapter 11, para. 6)
- “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.”(Chapter 13, para. 15)
- “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses.” (Chapter 13, para. 21)
- “I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none and related to none. ‘The path of my departure was free;’ and there was none to lament my annihilation.” (Chapter 15, para. 5)
- “Many things I read surpassed my understanding and experience. I had a very confused knowledge of kingdoms, wide extents of country, mighty rivers, and boundless seas. But I was perfectly unacquainted with towns, and large assemblages of men.” (Chapter 15, para. 6)
- “I read of men concerned in public affairs, governing or massacring their species….perhaps, if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations.” (Chapter 15, para. 6)
- “I revolved many projects; but that on which I finally fixed was, to enter the dwelling when the blind old man should be alone.” (Chapter 15, para. 13)
Well, we know what happens after he confronts the old man, De Lacey. I include that because the Monster contemplates a variety of hypotheses on how to approach his “hosts.” Unfortunately, he had an all or nothing plan. In a sense, he had to experiment in public, and it went awry.
- The Monster begins to control his creator: “Slave….I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master;–obey!” (Chapter 20, para. 11)
The most obvious warning is the when men remove women from a “natural” event–childbirth–you end up with a creature you can’t handle. The monster’s father abandoned him and there was no one to nurture or teach him. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wanted to make sure women were educated in order to be better partners to men (that was a major justification for her argument for more women’s rights). It’s likely that Shelley is warning scientists and inventors–nearly universally male in the early 19th Century–not to impose a single gendered lens on their endeavors. They ought to consider feminine perspectives as well. Once you create something, you have to take care of it.
Tomorrow is the last activity I have for us, and it’s watching a music video and a video game walkthrough. Don’t forget to do your Canvas posts before 6/22 at 11:00 pm.