Knowledge in Frankenstein

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

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

This lesson examines the theme of knowledge in Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, ''Frankenstein''. The lesson argues that at the heart of Shelley's tragic story is the conflict between knowledge and wisdom.

Mary Shelley

He Who Increases Knowledge Increases Sorrow: Knowledge in Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's 1818 masterpiece, Frankenstein, does far more than introduce the world to one of the most tragic and spine-tingling horror stories of all time. In the tale of the ambitious scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and his monstrous creation, Shelley warns against the reckless pursuit of knowledge without wisdom. Knowledge, she suggests, is most certainly power. But wisdom is knowing how to use it.

From 1831 novel edition

Victor Frankenstein's Early Studies

There's no doubt that Victor Frankenstein is brilliant. He is a born scholar, and that thirst for knowledge seems to have preceded even his first breath. But Victor's career as a scholar had some shady beginnings. Growing up in his family's remote estate in the Swiss mountains, he was largely self-taught as a boy. What he learned came mostly from books in his father's massive library.

The ancient Greek philosophers, metaphysicians, and alchemists, men who sought to turn base metal into gold, attracted Victor most. He loved these studies because they spoke to something infinitely powerful, something almost superhuman, within his grasp. These philosophers believed that every power of the universe would come into their hands, with only the proper study, the correct formulas, the appropriate incantation.

When Victor enters the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, however, he learns that the philosophers he's loved for so long have been widely discredited, dismissed as kooks, fakes, charlatans -- and worse.

So Victor has to start over; he has to learn the new science of the Enlightenment era in which he lives (late 18th century). This science is a bit dry for his taste. It is based on the objective, systematic, and rigorous study of the natural world. Nevertheless, brilliant as he is, he immediately excels in this new science. But his old tastes linger.

He still hungers after the extraordinary. He's not content just to unlock the secrets of photosynthesis or the revolution of the planets. He wants more. He wants to harness the spark of life. He wants to tame the terrors of death.

Ambition Meets Know-How: A Dangerous Combination

Within just a few years at the university, Victor builds a sterling reputation among his colleagues. His brilliance is celebrated and marveled at. His future as a scientist seems limitless, his future fame assured.

But no one knows what Victor is working on in secret. No one can fathom the ambition that is driving him. The truth is, though a grown young man, Victor is also a motherless child. Shortly before he left for university, his mother died of scarlet fever. He knows the ravages of grief. He feels it in himself. He sees it in those he most loves.

His ambition, then, is to use his scientific brilliance for the greatest possible good, to end that terror which afflicts the whole of the human family: the inevitability of death.

Victor thrills at the idea and his childhood readings of the ancient philosophers inspire him in his goals. They wanted the power that is now within his own grasp. They were fumbling for the tools that the new science and Victor's incredible mind have placed so abundantly in his hands.

All that was left was for Victor to combine ambition with know-how, to deliver this unimaginable gift to mankind: the gift of life over death.

Knowledge Without Wisdom: Monstrous Consequences

Of course, we all know how this turns out. Victor wakes up and realizes the horrifying thing he's done the instant the monster draws first breath. Victor's creation is repellent to him, terrifying in its size and power. It is knowledge out of control, the nuclear bomb that threatens to destroy the whole human race.

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