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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Desire to Share the Dangerous Knowledge
Accompanying the sense of danger we feel surrounding the disclosure of secret information is an inevitable worry of its possession. Curiosity and fear of course go hand in hand, and the latter usually does little to eradicate the former. Frankenstein is adept at inspiring both, in his preparation of Walton for the story he is about to inform:
I had determined once, that the memory of these evils ought to die with me but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for expertise and wisdom, as I once did and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been… if you are inclined, listen to my tale. I think that the strange incidents connected with it will afford a view of nature, which could enlarge your faculties and understanding… (17)
As an introduction to Frankenstein’s story, the passage is loaded with clues, not least the reference to the tree of knowledge and its attendant ‘serpent’, that the possession of the secret—of which the reader is just as expectant as Walton—is not going to be helpful. Frankenstein’s unnecessary, ‘if you are inclined…’ is certainly disingenuous, as he is well conscious that he has identified in Walton one particular who is looking for knowledge at any cost, ‘as I once did.’ Walton tells his sister that, possibly not unsurprisingly soon after this seductive precursor, he is complete of ‘the greatest eagerness’ to hear Frankenstein’s tale. He is rapid to point out that it is not mere ‘curiosity’ that prompts him to urge Frankenstein onwards in his confession, but also ‘a strong desire to ameliorate his fate.’ A rather dubious claim in light of the truth that he is still labeling Frankenstein ‘a stranger’ at this point. The phrase parallels virtually specifically that utilized by Frankenstein right after the monster has begged his creator to listen to his story: ‘I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution.’(79) Once once again, ‘curiosity’ is the dominant motivation, with the word ‘compassion’ sounding a distinct note of self-justification.
Critics have often explored how the frame-narrative structure, with its Chinese-box impact leading us ever closer to a potent kernel of truth that we never ever really attain, acts as a type of seduction. Beth Newman talks about how storytelling in Frankenstein, ‘serves as a way of seducing a listener, and as a signifies of displacing and sublimating a wish that can not be satisfied straight.’ A sense of the seductive high quality of Frankenstein’s discourse is provided in Walton’s description of his ‘unparalleled eloquence’, deployed by the ‘choicest art’(15). Later, Walton gives us an image of Frankenstein as a kind of siren, luring guys at sea to their deaths by way of the energy of his words, encouraging the fearful crew of Walton’s ship to continue on their fatal quest with the belief that ‘these vast mountains of ice are mole-hills, which will vanish prior to the resolutions of man’(181).
Why then, does Frankenstein carry out this almost perverse act of seduction, realizing it will only lead to heartache? The question can be answered after again by Shelley’s description of her personal function as her ‘progeny’ the act of revelation, of sharing of expertise, is as basic a human need as maternal reproduction. The novel is full of characters desperate to relate their stories to other people, to unburden themselves of the weight of terrible truths. Just like Frankenstein, the monster begs that an individual, ‘hear my tale’(79), and just like Walton, Frankenstein is irresistibly compelled to listen. The urge to communicate is echoed once again and once again, right down to the gossipy communications of Elizabeth in her letters to her fiancée Frankenstein, in which she is prompted by her desire to reveal to engage in lengthy descriptions of miscellaneous parish news.
The instance is of course a trivial 1, but is one of the quite a few devices used in the novel to highlight the distinction between the blithe discourse of those capable to share every thing with those they enjoy, and the miserable narrative of Frankenstein, forced to conceal secrets and hide his accurate feelings at each turn. The difference is most overtly highlighted in a comparison of Frankenstein and his pal, Henry Clerval, when they embark on their tour of the European sights collectively. Clerval is repeatedly depicted as a paradigm of human existence, ‘a becoming formed in the “very poetry of nature”’.(130) He is also, as “Freudian” readers of the text are so fond of pointing out, one of the many “doubles” that populate Frankenstein. Frankenstein makes this explicit in his assertion that, ‘in Clerval I saw the image of my former self.’(131) The implication is that Clerval is Frankenstein with no knowledge. Frankenstein repeatedly characterizes all those in the novel with no his information as belonging to a kid-like, Arcadian vision of innocence, in contrast to his own individual ‘hell.’ Within his sense of horror at his predicament is inherent a sense of superiority, nevertheless terrible, to those who can't understand the trigger of his suffering. Therefore he responds to the guidance of his father with a terse dismissal, ‘though very good, entirely inapplicable to my case.’(70) Once again and once more Frankenstein is careful to point out that his grief is completely his personal possession-inaccessible to other folks.
Robert Kiely explains the conflicting emotions that Frankenstein feels by the fact of his being a ‘genius’, and thus prone to a dissonance between the human need to have for friendship, to share with those he loves, and ‘the appropriate of the genius to work in solitude.’ That superior understanding leads to solitude is borne out by the events of Frankenstein’s tale. But the explanation is a challenging one, as it puts forward the notion that Frankenstein earns his knowledge of the secret of human life by means of his inherent genius, rather than by means of the combination of his ambitious nature and the temptations of the evil branch of natural science that seems to appear fortuitously just before him. At one point Frankenstein bemoans the truth that his father, soon after seeing that his young son had begun to stray down the path of the semi-magical organic conjurers like Agrippa and Magnus, did not ‘take the pains to explain’(23) that these men’s suggestions have been outmoded and akin to a sort of sorcery. Given this, are we to assume that the result in of Frankenstein’s downfall was merely that his genius was not harnessed appropriately at an earlier stage? The question is 1 that the novel never completely answers.
When Frankenstein particulars his life at the university in Ingolstadt, a possessive tone as soon as again emerges when he points out, ‘None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.’(33) The word ‘enticements’, along with allusions to ‘delight and rapture’ and the ‘summit of my desires’(34) figure the achievement of knowledge very a lot as a sexually charged climax following an exercising in seduction, a formula which mirrors the act of disclosure of his story to Walton. Overt parallels, which would seem to act as obvious warning indicators, take place once more and once more in Frankenstein, but, as Paul Sherwin has pointed out, this apparent genius remains the ‘chief misreader’ of his own story. Frankenstein tells Walton to ‘learn from me’, recognizing the ‘eager’ glint in his listener’s eyes and warning him, ‘I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I was then, to your destruction and infallible misery.’(35) And yet soon right after we see him urging Walton and his crew onwards to what can only be their destruction at the North Pole, utilizing alternating tactics of the lure of honour and glory, and the shame of becoming ‘cowards’(183), should they turn back from their objective. This is to say practically nothing of the truth that Frankenstein is continuously ‘leading us on’ by means of the really act of revealing his narrative. It would appear that, even armed with what should certainly be the most powerful warning against the ambitious pursuit of understanding ever designed, Frankenstein is pleased to recognize and encourage in others what he calls in himself a ‘fatal impulse.’(23)
The lure of forbidden knowledge is of course a classic Gothic touchstone, exactly where it normally functions just as powerfully for the reader as it does for the character who experiences it. Caleb William’s recognition of his fatal need to discover the truth of his master’s shaded previous may possibly properly be addressed to a reader of Frankenstein, ‘The reader will really feel how swiftly I was advancing towards the brink of the precipice. I had a confused apprehension of what I was doing, but I could not quit myself.’ The distinction is that, whilst the reader is in a position to empathise wholeheartedly with a figure like Caleb Williams, or even an historical, romantic heroine like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Shelley rather pulls us away from an understanding of Frankenstein’s experiences and desires. The frame narrative is a essential element of this, consistently reminding us that we are finding out of a horror we will only ever hear in a tale, rather than knowledge in genuine life. Charles Schug points to this as a ‘necessary’ signifies of containing the moral expertise of Frankenstein within the bounds of fiction. But the key distancing element is that Frankenstein is grappling, not with human feelings and secret family members histories, but in a realm of quasi-magical, organic scientific understanding that we are not intended ever to try to comprehend. The image we are given of the university at Ingolstadt as a removed and remote location of studying, and its unfriendly professors such as M. Krempe, reinforces the sense that this kind of information exists in an isolated and inaccessible arena, a globe away from the satisfied life of relative ignorance and continual human interaction of Frankenstein’s house. Frankenstein’s ‘workshop’ is similarly marked as isolated and lonely very first in a ‘solitary chamber…separated from all the other apartments’(36), and later on an almost uninhabited island off the Scottish coast.
In her portrayal of Frankenstein’s and Walton’s self-consciously harmful pursuit of knowledge in the novel, Shelley is possibly attempting to communicate anything about the perils of individualistic, excessive ardour of the Romantic search for enlightenment. We can not assist but be relieved when Walton is in the end forced to abandon his quest and make his way house to safety, in spite of his belief that his failure to attain the pole leaves him ‘ignorant and disappointed’(184). And yet equally prominent is the parallel pull that the novel tends to make on our own curiosity as it pushes on towards its horrific climax, marking the desire for information, however terrible, as an inescapable situation of human existence.
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