Is Knowledge Power?

In Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ as the reader becomes introduced to Victor Frankenstein, they simultaneously become exposed to the ironically detrimental effects of knowledge. Where Shelley takes the time in the first few chapters to paint the picture of Victor’s family – how tight knit they seemingly are – she also makes sure to include references to Victor’s inherent addiction to knowledge. As Victor progresses throughout his studious endeavors, the reader begins to take notice of Victor’s deterioration in both physical and mental health. By the end of our introduction to Victor, following the moment of the birth of his creation, the reader may come to the conclusion that Victor himself was addicted to the unknown and was emotionally scarred by the death of his mother and the overall fragility of the human condition. These factors, combined with his stubborn attitude and fanciful dreams of grandeur, all amount to the eventual downfall of Frankenstein – his creation story.

In Victor’s account of his life to Walton, he attempts to paint himself as an individual who was enamored by the discovery of uncharted territory; as an adventurer in the realm of academia. He places great importance on his ties to family and seems to be setting himself up for a story that serves as a lesson to be cautious about how far one allows their ambitions to carry them. Where this is indeed a lesson to be proven within the context of his story, however, it is important to analyze Victor’s account of himself to attempt to elucidate the factors that attributed to this important discovery. Victor does indeed paint himself as a family man – perhaps to gain some degree of admiration or respect from his audience – in his account of his father, mother, and sister. He lovingly states how “no creature could have more tender parents than [his]” (Shelley 65), and describes his sister as “luxuriant…and possess[ing] an attractive softness” (66). These accounts are important as they help the reader understand how Frankenstein held his family in the highest esteem; how things they said or did affected him greatly. Perhaps the most important scene in the depiction of Victor’s character occurs during the family’s trip to some baths near Thonon. During his time here, when Victor took a liking to the outdated philosophical teachings of Agrippa, he makes mention of the importance of his father’s input about the author’s philosophy. The quick, distant remark that what Victor read “is sad trash” (68) left Victor feeling dissatisfied and yearning for more knowledge. Victor himself mentions how, had his father given him some explanation for why the teachings were outdated, he would have accepted his greater wisdom and tossed the outdated teachings aside. Here marks a slight deviation from the picture Victor is attempting to paint. Instead of respecting the knowledge of his father, Victor shows an idealistic stubbornness and even takes time to give some partial blame to his father for his eventual downfall. This is not to say that Victor blames others entirely for his faults. On the contrary, Victor does show how he is willing and able to take responsibility for his actions: “The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise…of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own experience and mistake” (69). This section is important in laying the grounds for what is to come. Victor shows himself as holding high respect for his family members but also holding an innate desire for an explanation to the mysteries of life. His zeal for knowledge paves way for his stubbornness and idealism to eventually possess his spirit.

When his mother passes, Victor reveals the despair and grief he felt, as anyone would, but the passage elucidates a triggering point for Frankenstein’s adamant desire to bring the dead to life. “I need not describe the feelings of those whose dearest ties are rent by that most irreparable evil…why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel” (72)? Here, Victor lingers. The passing of his mother forces him to reflect even more on the fragility of life and it is these thoughts that allow for the idealistic philosophies of Agrippa, Magnus and Paracelsus to compound in his mind and eventually spark the discovery of reanimation. Once he is introduced to the foundations of natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and death and deterioration, he then begins his plunge into the darker depths of his character. “My cheeks had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement…and the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me to also forget those friends who were so many miles absent” (81). This description shows the greatest point of degradation that Victor faced in his pursuit for knowledge and fulfillment. He sought success and understanding to such a great degree that, for the first time in his life, he allowed himself to suffer and neglect those whom he held in the highest regards.

By the end of the first few chapters, the reader already senses and understands, at least to some degree, the pain and regret that Victor faces. Whether Victor intended to or not, he effectively related all his inherent faults and how they led to his eventual plunge into despair. His lust for knowledge and the excitement of a grand discovery narrowed his mind such that he began to focus only on one goal, and, consequently, allowed other things to suffer for it, whether it be his family or his own health. Victor’s deep love and respect for his own family, particularly his mother, led to such shock and suffering from her passing that his mind became fixed on the phenomenon of life and death even more-so than it had before. Thus far is Victor’s warning to his new friend Walton. Realizing his own stubbornness and radical idealism, Victor begs Walton to reflect on the question, which is the truer statement: knowledge is power, or ignorance is bliss?

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