Reflection on the Scientific Revolution in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein pays homage to the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution and the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution was not truly a revolution as explained in Professor David Ciarlo’s class, but rather the emergence and advancement of a more refined scientific methodology throughout the 17th century. The Enlightenment followed the Scientific Revolution during the 18th century, and it gave way to a mass spread of modern science and knowledge throughout Europe. During the Enlightenment, many scholars and/or intellectuals challenged the “old” ways of thinking, religion, and/or how society was run. The Enlightenment fixated on discovery, logic, reason, and observation of the natural world which can be explained with our eyes, mind, and knowledge especially in mathematics. One of many ideas that signified the Enlightenment was the idea of man’s place in nature or their desire to control nature. There are clear examples of Mary Shelley criticizing the “old science” and embellishing the ideas and discoveries of the new sciences and its’ techniques in Frankenstein. However, Shelley hints at the dangers of embracing the newer sciences as well. Mary Shelley’s novel, through the Victor Frankenstein’s narrative and the creation of his Creature, both celebrates and critiques the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment ideals during the 19th century.

Mary Shelley celebrates the findings of the Scientific Revolution mainly in volume 1 of the book in how Victor spends his time at the University of Ingolstadt and creating his creature. First, Victor meets Krempe, who states, “the ancient teachers of this science…promised impossibilities, and performed nothing.”[footnoteRef:1] Shelley clearly criticizes the “old sciences” and reveals that better learning and discovery comes from the newer sciences built from the Scientific Revolution. This is shown when M. Waldman revealed to Victor a more modern technique and approach to science that is more pragmatic and realistic. It is through these modern scientific methods that lead Victor to become infatuated with creating life. If Shelley truly believed that the new ways of science were wretched or wrong, she would not have had a professor denounce Victor’s views on alchemy and the old philosophers. Here, Shelley is drawing on the works of Andres Vesalius, who dissected human beings to learn about human anatomy. Victor spends years perfecting the Creature’s body, and at some point, he was even proud of his work when he looks at the Creatures muscles and believed it was crafted to perfection and proportionality. The monster is a perfect example of these scientists’ discovery of the Scientific Revolution.

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Another idea of the Enlightenment was the control of nature. This goes hand-in-hand of the ideals of the Enlightenment period. During this time, many philosophers were pushing the lines of understanding where religion, the old sciences, and social ideals were being tested and/or questioned. The creation of the Creature is a testament to pushing the boundaries of the “old” ideas. The fact that Victor creates a living creature from dead parts is a sign that he has the power to control the elements around him. Victor is in a sense a “god” or playing-god. Therefore, if a common man like Victor can bring life to the world, then is there a god? Shelley makes us think that there is no god and that modern science is the new way to view and change the world. These traits are embodied in Victor Frankenstein as well. Victor quickly abandons his old ways of thinking and is fascinated by the modern practices for experimentation. He is so infatuated with it that he does his experiment for 2 years with no social interaction from anyone and becomes gravely ill. His commitment to the new sciences is his drive to change the world with his work. This is a common idea of the Enlightenment movement which is to ultimately change society through creation, experimentation, and discovery.

In volume 2 of the novel, Shelley mainly focuses on the Creature and his narrative. Shelley also reflects ideas of the Enlightenment in the Creature especially in the realm of morals. The Creature came into the world without any guidance or influence of a god or creator. Immediately abandoned, the Creature seeks meaning and reason for being alive. During this time of the Enlightenment, observation was an important aspect of the new scientific methodology where ideas and phenomenon can be explained through observation. The monster learns that he is rejected by society by noticing the ways that others treat him. He also obtains morals and ethics from observing the cottagers and reading books; he realizes what is right and wrong with him and the world. Interestingly, Shelley does not mention the Creature ever reading or obtaining knowledge from the bible or a church. This is Shelley’s bold way of rejecting the ideas of the church during the Enlightenment period. Shelley makes a clear statement that morals or what is ‘right and wrong’ can be learned without the church or most importantly, without the bible. This is important in the sense that most of Europe has been majorly influenced by the bible and church for centuries where sins are learned or born with. This also leans on the idea of atheism (although the word has not been established this early on as stated in class). If a creature or anyone can learn morals and ethics without a religious book, entity, or person, then there is no need for a god, or a church, and so on. What is ‘right from wrong’ may be relative. Another idea that sprouted during the time of the Enlightenment was John Locke’s blank slate idea. Before the Enlightenment, the idea of being born good or with sin has been established with your status in society. Mary Shelley does not deliberately state this but, she hints that the monster was born with a blank slate or blank mind This means he is born with absolutely nothing at first, and it is experiences that defines them. If this was the case, Shelley has once again defied the teachings of the church where the idea of people are born with sin are prevalent. If the monster was born neither good nor with sin, the reason why he does bad things is because of his experiences and there is no predetermining entities that defines the monster or makes the monster do wrong things.

Shelley also shows reservations and critiques the new age of science. This is shown through Victor Frankenstein’s slow, but inevitable downfall as well as the Creature. This critique about new science first appears near the beginning of the novel when Victor achieves this goal of creating life. When the Victor first witnesses the lifelessness in the Creature’s eyes, he runs. This is an example of Shelley’s assessment of the new sciences, where not all discoveries or experiments are going to be accepted or appreciated. From the beginning, the Creature gets a sense that something is wrong with him. It wasn’t until later when he gets shot, ridiculed, and reads books when he realizes his form and existence is unaccepted by society. Shelley’s extreme version of what is essentially a giant human-being leads us to believe that the creature is an amalgamation of what can go wrong with modern science, and if science goes beyond human comprehension, it can create danger rather than benefits. This can be seen when the Creature, due to being rejected by society and ultimately his creator, kills innocent people. Shelley also reveals her reservation about the Enlightenment ideals with Victor’s downfall. Victor has successfully seized the power of nature by creating life, however, the Creature and nature punishes Victor in the end for gaining this power.

By denying the Creature a stable life and a mate, the Creature kills Victor’s loved ones. Shelley hints at the idea that an “ordinary” man should not have the power to bring life, or in a way, break “natural law.” Because of this, Victor is consistently punished by sickness and later the death of his loved ones. This relates to the subtitle “the Modern Prometheus.” Prometheus, if I recall correctly, was someone who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the humans. The gods then punished Prometheus because fire is considered life and power. Like Prometheus, Victor created life and has to suffer for it. Victor is punished by nature when he tries to brave the conditions of the artic which leads him to his death. No matter what Victor does, he is haunted by the creature, in constant fear or agony. Therefore, although the Enlightenment period focuses on harnessing the power of nature, Shelley seems to be stressing the idea there is a limit to taking this power. Even the Creature realizes that he is not born within the laws of nature and sees no future in living in a world that rejects his existence. Shelley clearly shows the fears of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution with the death of Victor and the Creature.

All in all, Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein as an ode to the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Victor Frankenstein’s ability to create life stems from the knowledge of the scientists who wrote and made discoveries during the Scientific Revolution. It is then the ideals of the Enlightenment that drives Victor to his downfall and the death of the Creature. This novel both challenges the “old ways” of thinking and as well as the “new ways” of thinking by challenging the ideas of god and creation through Victor Frankenstein. Despite showing reservations, Mary Shelley mainly celebrates the side of progress and advancement of the Enlightenment period.

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