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Frankenstein Ambition Quotes

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

In her 1818 masterpiece, 'Frankenstein', Mary Shelley does far more than present one of the most iconic sci-fi/horror stories in all of literature. Instead, Shelley issues an unforgettable warning about the lure and the dangers of ambition.

To Dream the Impossible Dream: Ambition in Frankenstein

How far would you go to make your dreams a reality? What would you do to be remembered for all time? Who would you sacrifice to die a legend? These are questions Mary Shelley explores in her 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein. In presenting the plight of the tragic Dr. Frankenstein and the slow tearing away of all he holds dear, Shelley issues a stern warning to us all. She shows that the price we pay to make our greatest ambitions a reality may be far too dear.

Mary Shelley
Shelley

Victor's Lofty Ambitions: Aspiring Beyond Human Limits

Even as a young boy, Victor had always dreamed big. When he enters the University of Ingolstadt and discovers natural philosophy, or the study of the natural world using objective and empirical scientific methods, he's naturally disappointed. Victor had spent his childhood in love with the fantastic ideas of the ancient Greek metaphysicians (those who combined science with mysticism) and alchemists (those who wanted to learn to turn base metals into gold).

By the end of the 18th century, when Victor comes of age, those ancient philosophies had long since been exposed for the bunk they were, the stuff of fakes, fools, and madmen. Taking their place were the more humble ambitions of modern science, the slow, gradual accumulation of knowledge - the advancement of learning by centimeters and inches rather than leagues and miles.

It's tough, however, to give up the dreams of childhood, and Victor describes his disappointment in this way:

'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.'

In other words, Victor was bored. He wanted more than what his fellow scientists were doing. It wasn't enough for him just to study the orbits of the planets or to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis. He wanted to conquer the forces of life and death itself. He wanted to tame the spark of creation.

The monster awakens
Frankenstein

How the Mighty Fall

Victor fulfills his life's ambitions. He achieves more than most human beings would even dare to dream of. He creates life from lifeless matter, from the stitched together carcasses of humans, animals, and goodness knows what else (the text is purposefully vague on Victor's exact process, but we know enough to know it's not pretty).

The result, though, is heartbreak and terror. He unleashes a force beyond his understanding or control. He wants superhuman power and he certainly gets it--with disastrous results. Victor discusses his accomplishment not with pride but with profound regret: 'From my infancy, I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk!'

This leads to an important question: are we destined to be who we are? Can we avoid the fate that we seem to have been born for? After all, Victor states that this ambition is something that has been a part of his nature from birth. How do you change your ultimate character? Or are we destined to play the role that the universe or fate or whatever has written for us? Could Victor Frankenstein ever have done otherwise than create his monster and unleash the force that destroyed him?

The Humbling Tranquility of Hearth and Home

At certain moments, Victor himself seems to answer this question with a resounding 'yes.' This is especially true when Victor describes the soothing influence of his beloved fiancée, Elizabeth. Victor's best friend from childhood, Henry Clerval, was a man of great ambition himself, but Elizabeth's calming influence on Clerval made all the difference in his life. Victor describes Elizabeth and Clerval's friendship in this way:

'Yet he (Clerval) might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity, so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had she (Elizabeth) not unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.'

For Clerval, the humility and self-sacrifice of his lovely friend provide an example that guides Clerval throughout the rest of his life. He ends up devoting his life to his loved ones, and especially to Victor himself as Victor faces the horrifying consequences of his hubris, the reckless pride that got him into such a mess.

The question remains, though, as to why Clerval can learn so well from Elizabeth's influence when Victor, her own fiancé, does not. What is it about Victor that makes him so single-minded in his ambition? Why does he rush headlong into destruction when he has all the love and happiness of home right there before him?

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