Individualism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is clearly a cautionary tale that spells the moral and sociological implications of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. There is a tendency to limit the theme of the novel to science, and thereby to ignore the underlying philosophy. But the scientist is only encouraged, or discouraged, by the social and philosophical milieu in which he exists. In this sense the rise of modern science must be properly attributed to the philosophy of Enlightenment, that which believed in the infinite perfectibility of man through the strict practice of reason.
If experimental philosophy is one expression of this philosophy, then philosophic individualism is another. This latter philosophy maintains that the human being is intrinsically free, and therefore his nature is ultimately good, which also implies that it is devoid of evil. Apparent evil only reflects the constraints of man as a social being. The aim of politics must therefore be to minimize society and encourage the individual as far as possible. The extreme manifestation of such thinking is anarchism. We next take note that Mary Shelley was brought up in a climate of extreme anarchism.
Both her parents were anarchists, and she was brought up in the same mould. Her husband, the celebrated poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was also an avowed anarchist and atheist. Therefore the novel may be fruitfully analyzed from the point of view of philosophic individualism. Victor Frankenstein is not the representative of science in the novel, as is normally believed. The true such representative is the explorer Robert Walton, who is on a scientific expedition to the Artic Circle. This location symbolizes the extreme edge of the material universe.
The journey symbolizes the straightforward and happy path to knowledge. Such an attitude is reflected in Walton’s following comment, made in a letter to his sister: “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? ” (Shelley 16). Science promises to throw clear and eternal light on all things, and the path is a straightforward one of experiment and induction. Walton is not supposed to know of that which lurks beneath the surface, and he only comes to know it through the narrated experience of Frankenstein, whom he picks up on the way.
He may not understand the full implication of what Frankenstein tells him, but the implied caution is enough, so he aborts his mission and turns his ship back. He is able to absorb enough of the message, that the practice of science is fraught with danger, and that it is not wise to strive towards the limits of knowledge.
Frankenstein is far more than a mere scientist. Not mere rational explanations, he aims for “the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life” (Ibid 48). He sees science as a futile endeavor if it can never come to the ultimate cause of things, and must then only dabble with immediate causes.
He shuns science in favor of alchemy on his first entering university. Alchemy is the arcane discipline which takes into account the limitations of science, and aims to overcome them by the more profound understanding of the processes of Creation itself. In the end it is science that is employed in the creation of “the creature”, but is also certain the secret of generation lies with alchemy. The latter is successful only when it overcomes the limitations of science. Therefore the creature, which is imbued with life, must be called a successful union of alchemy and science.
Frankenstein is in the end an alchemist. He must operate in the darkest secrecy, this being the only mode of alchemy. Concerning the arcane sciences Montaigne has observed, “[T]o go according to nature is only to go according to our intelligence, as far as it can follow and as far as we can see; what is beyond is monstrous and disordered” (391). Caught up in such monstrous designs, Frankenstein cannot explain himself throughout the novel, even as the menace of the monster becomes more and more severe. The aspect of philosophic individualism appears when we come to consider the creature itself.
As soon as it has come to life it is an individual, and the inevitable comparison appears with the prototype individual, which is Adam. The parallel comparison is between the Creator and Frankenstein. What is the implication of this conceit to mimic the Creator? A vital clue is found in how Shelley describes the inspirational vision that led her to write the novel, which is included in the Preface to the 1831 edition: “Frightful must it be,” she says, “for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” (qtd. in Lederer et al, 3).
It is inevitable that the creature turn out to be a horror. All involved come to this essential truth. Frankenstein realizes this as soon as he sees the first muscle twitch. To the creature too the horror unfolds after he is allowed to compare himself with “true” creatures. His discovery of Milton’s Paradise Lost is a consummation of his understanding. He has observed the sublime virtues of the human by observing village life from afar. He feels such virtue swelling inside himself. But to express this he must have society, and his horrid demeanor will not allow him to have human company.
He is truly alone, and then he discovers the parallel to his own situation in the plight of Adam when alone in Eden. The difference is that Adam’s creator is loving and forgiving, whereas his own creator has forsaken him in revulsion. He knows that the only path open to him is to excite pity in the heart of his creator. Like Adam, he asks for a female being of his kind, whose company will console him. But this is not to be, because his creator hates him too strongly. The moral of the tale seems to be that the overreach of learning tends towards alienation.
In the first instance we have Victor Frankenstein, whose mad quest for the secret of vitality impels him into a solitary endeavor, and from which there can be no link back to society. Even when the whole thing has gone horribly wrong, and all those close to him are imperiled, and are being murdered one by one, he cannot explain what is intrinsically a secret. The creature too is no less a catastrophe. As Paul Sherwin notes, “[T]he evacuation of the spiritual presence from the world of the novel suggests that Frankenstein is more a house of ruins than the house divided” (883).
The creature is intelligent and sensitive, but suffers the more so because it brings home to him the total wretchedness of his condition. To the world he is a monster, and only his creator can redeem him, through compassion and pity. Both creator and creature have been cut adrift from the world as forsaken individuals. They have both become monstrosities, and indeed the structure of the novel itself is monstrous in many ways, as has been suggested by Daniel Cottom (60). Alienation is shown to be the product of Enlightenment philosophy and the Industrial Revolution.
The process of individuation in the West can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation. Calvinism and Puritanism only masked the inner tendency towards individualism, which burst forth in the 18th century as the Enlightenment. The doctrine of Calvin is inimical to all institutions. The very idea of the new individual is what animated Milton to rewrite the story of Creation in Paradise Lost. The latent anarchism of the new faith is found in the following lines where Adam complains to God: Did I request thee, Maker from my clay To mould Me man?
Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me? (Milton 269) We hear a clear echo of the creatures’ lament in these words. So in Milton himself, who was a staunch Puritan, we find the seed of Frankenstein’s monster. In his younger days he wrote scathing anarchist texts, such as Areopagitica. Anarchism has always been a growing trend in the political thinking of the West from Milton onwards. John Locke and Edmund Burke were key proponents in this regards. William Godwin came to voice an extreme form of such thinking, which became extremely influential.
When Hazlitt came to sum up the spirit of the age, he put the name of Godwin at the forefront. (Bowerbank 418). With Godwin, not only all socio-political institutions, but even the institution of marriage was suspect. This is the milieu that Shelley imbibed, and came to depict in her novel.
The new individual is not always an anarchist by choice. The common man is more likely to be individualist by compulsion. Here we have the distinction between Frankenstein and the creature. The plight of the common man is no less tragic. He is a creature of mechanization, and is alienated from all that surrounds him.
Frankenstein’s creature is symbolic of the new individual. It can only appeal to its creator, and is therefore doomed to live with mechanization. In this way Shelley paints for us a haunting picture of the new reality which the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had brought about. In conclusion, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about respecting the limits of science, but at an even more profound level it depicts the alienated individual of modern industrial society. Shelley was brought up in a climate of intense individualism.
Her parents were anarchists, as was her husband, and she kept regular company with poets and artists who lived and thought in this mode. In the novel, Robert Walton is representative of science, but Victor Frankenstein is a far more important character, because he represents the arcane philosophy that sustains science. But the most important depiction is of the monstrous creature, who is representative of the new individual.
Bowerbank, Sylvia. “The Social Order vs The Wretch: Mary Shelley’s Contradictory-Mindedness in Frankenstein. ” ELH. Vol. 46, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 418-431.
Cottom, Daniel. “Frankenstein and the Monster of Representation. ” SubStance. Vol. 9, No. 3, Issue 28 (1980), pp. 60-71.
Lederer, Susan E; Elizabeth Fee, Patricia Tuohy. Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Collector’s Library, 2004.
Milton, John. Paradise lost and other poems. Ed. Edward Le Comte. New York: Signet Classic, 2003.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Ed. Donald Murdoch Frame. Stanford University Press, 1965.
Sherwin, Paul. “Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe. ” PMLA. Vol. 96, No. 5 (Oct. , 1981), pp. 883-903.