Frankenstein, speaking of himself as a young man in his father’s home, points out that he is unlike Elizabeth, who would rather follow “the aerial creations of the poets”. Instead he pursues knowledge of the “world” though investigation. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the meaning of the word “world” is for Frankenstein, very much biased or limited. He thirsts for knowledge of the tangible world and if he perceives an idea to be as yet unrealised in the material world, he then attempts to work on the idea in order to give it, as it were, a worldly existence. Hence, he creates the creature that he rejects because its worldly form did not reflect the glory and magnificence of his original idea. Thrown, unaided and ignorant, into the world, the creature begins his own journey into the discovery of the strange and hidden meanings encoded in human language and society. In this essay, I will discuss how the creature can be regarded as a foil to Frankenstein through an examination of the schooling, formal and informal, that both of them go through. In some ways, the creature’s gain in knowledge can be seen to parallel Frankenstein’s, such as, when the creature begins to learn from books. Yet, in other ways, their experiences differ greatly, and one of the factors that contribute to these differences is a structured and systematic method of learning, based on philosophical tenets, that is available to Frankenstein but not to the creature.
Frankenstein speaks fondly of his youth because his parents were “indulgent” and his companions were “amiable” (21). His parents’ policy in the education of their children is that there should neither be punishment nor “the voice of command” (26). Instead, they encourage their children to pursue their studies with vigor by “having the end placed in view”(21) and by having them discover the process by which to reach the end and not by making them learn tedious lessons. Frankenstein’s testimony to this is that he learnt better and retained his knowledge well. The approach to Frankenstein’s education in the home is strongly influenced by Rousseau, one of the most eloquent writers of the Age of Enlightenment. In his influential novel Emile, Rousseau expounded a new theory of education that emphasises the importance of expression rather than repression to produce a well-balanced and free-thinking child.
Free Essays: Frankenstein and the Enlightenment
Many people say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein postdates the Enlightenment; that it is a looking-back on the cultural phenomenon after its completion, and a first uncertain reaction to the movement. I must disagree. There is no “after the Enlightenment.” A civilization does not simply stop learning. Where is the point at which someone stands up and says, “Okay, that’s enough Enlightening for now, I think we’re good for another few centuries”?
For better or for worse, the Enlightenment is still going on today. As the Information Age advances, we continue to invent and build. Exploration now reaches to the depths of the oceans and the nearer regions of space. We peer beyond the atom, beyond the sub-atomic particle, delving ever deeper into the secrets of science to find that ultimate point at which it converges with philosophy.
The question is: do we want to?
The picture on the cover of our edition of Frankenstein is Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump — an appropriate scene, not only for how it recalls Shelley’s mental state, but also for how well it illustrates precisely that doubt about the Enlightenment the novel was written to express. All around a table, at which a scientific experiment that harms a living creature is being conducted, are seated various people of differing social positions, and similarly differing reactions to the event at hand. A pair of inquisitive young men look on eagerly, a frightened woman turns her head away in abject horror, a young girl stares apprehensively, unsure of what to think. That young girl is us. And based on what we see in the air pump, we must decide whether we will become the frightened woman or the interested men.
I find little room to doubt that Shelley is trying to instill some sense of fear in her reader. For not only does Victor Frankenstein loathe his own creation — and let us not be mistaken, the work of the doctor is without question a symbol for the larger body of work of all Enlightenment scientists, seeking knowledge they do not understand in order to perform tasks previously thought impossible — but the creation curses himself as well, speaking of the grotesqueness of his appearance and admitting freely to having willfully done evil.
Perhaps in Shelley’s mind this is indeed unspeakable. For my part, rather than view Frankenstein’s monster as a symptom of the potential terror resulting from the advances of Enlightenment science, I look on it as a symptom as one of the advances made by Enlightenment philosophy.