| Knowledge is defined as the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned (American Heritage Dictionary). This definition is easy enough to understand. Knowledge is a very intricate subject, however, and the true definition of it is often debated. What characteristics must something have to be considered knowledge? For instance, does something have to be true to be considered knowledge? The proper acquirement and use of knowledge is also debated. What types of knowledge and how much is appropriate or important for us to learn? Are there limits on what humans are meant to understand? Different people value different things and would have varying responses to these questions. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, many of these questions about knowledge are addressed.
Shelley offers a perfect example of how inappropriate knowledge can lead to disaster in her main character, Victor Frankenstein. He becomes so engrossed in science, specifically the mystery of life, that he ceases to care about everything else. In Frankenstein's case, his focus on only one mode of knowledge ruins his life. During the time he was attempting to create life, he became mostly classical, according to Pirsig's definition of the classical mode. Pirsig indicates that a classic is governed by fact rather than feeling (Pirsig, ch. 6). Frankenstein pushed romantic emotions like peace, tranquility, and calmness aside and only cared about fulfilling his goal of bestowing life. It is unlikely that everyone who focuses on one study will encounter the same devastating results. What was so inappropriate about Frankenstein's use of knowledge?
Many would agree that total concentration on one mode of knowledge is not a good thing. Frankenstein is not only guilty of this, but he also enters an area of knowledge beyond his, or any human's, bounds. The bible instructs that God is our creator and the one who gives us life. Frankenstein uncovered a secret that he was not supposed to know and gave the gift of life, a gift that was not his to give, earning him the nickname of "The Modern Prometheus". Prometheus also gave a gift that was not his to give when he gave fire to mankind, which he was punished by Zeus for. Another Promethean character is shown in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve. They disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. The fruit gave them knowledge that God did not want them to have. As a result, they too were punished by God and sent away from paradise. The terrible things that Frankenstein endured due to the wrath of his miserable monster were part of his punishment for pursuing knowledge humans are not supposed to know. If a person listens to their conscience, I believe they can distinguish the line between things people should strive to comprehend and things that are better left to God. Had Frankenstein taken the time to listen to his conscience, he may have realized that the gift of life is something that God alone is meant to give.
Another factor leading to Frankenstein's demise was the motivation for his actions. Knowledge can definitely be used to help other people, but it can also cause harm. Frankenstein lost his "benevolent intentions" (Shelley 69, vol. II, ch. 1), and replaced them with selfishness and arrogance. He had focused so completely on science for so long that he excelled in it. He desired to prove his excellence to himself and everyone, and he attempted to do so in the most dramatic way he could think of, giving life to an inanimate object. He also chose to make a human, rather than a simpler living thing. "I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt my ability" (Shelley 35, vol. I, ch. 3). Similarly to the Ancient Prometheus, Frankenstein was motivated by a need for glory. He yearned for the fame and gratitude that he believed would accompany creating life. For example, Frankenstein states, "A new species would bless me as its creator and source. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (Shelley 36, vol. I, ch. 3). He was so wrapped up in his goals that he could not "consider the magnitude and complexity of the plan as any argument of its impracticability" (Shelley 35, vol. I, ch. 3).
Each of these faults in Frankenstein contributed to his downfall. Shelley's views on knowledge are mirrored by a quote from Frankenstein. "A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind...If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful" (Shelley 37, vol. I, ch. 3). In this quote, Shelley depicts knowledge as the multi-faceted subject that it is. On one hand, the quote is very precise. It states at exactly what point Shelley believes knowledge becomes dangerous. But this point could be different for everyone. This indicates that the topic of knowledge is not purely black and white, but a matter that must be considered by each individual person.
Shelley offers models of the appropriate amount of knowledge in many characters, such as Clerval and Elizabeth. Frankenstein was the only character to completely lose track of everything he cared about in the pursuit of knowledge. The other characters were able to find a medium between furthering their knowledge and retaining their values and emotions. Frankenstein loses everyone he has, but they were not at fault. Their deaths were part of his downfall and a result of his mistakes. The best example Shelley gives of the appropriate balance of knowledge can be seen in Captain Robert Walton. He is very well-educated and has a desire to further his knowledge and benefit mankind. In a letter to his sister, Walton proclaims, "You cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries" (Shelley 6, vol. I, letter 1). He has another dimension, however. He, unlike Frankenstein, makes a conscious effort to keep in touch with the people he cares about. He was also able to heed the suggestion of his crew to turn around when the voyage became too dangerous. Frankenstein was urged by his family to not focus so completely on his studies, but he ignored them. He knew that contact with his family would restore his emotions and distract him from his goal. He admits that he wanted to "procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object...should be completed" (Shelley 37, vol. I, ch. 3). Walton displays a balance of scientific and sympathetic knowledge, whereas Frankenstein focused solely on the scientific.
The balance of knowledge is very important. If Frankenstein had a more holistic knowledge, he may have never created the monster. He probably would not have discovered the ability to bestow life. He wouldn't have been less intelligent, just more well-rounded. If he had still created the monster, a more holistic knowledge would still have been beneficial. He would have spent more time on the outside appearance of the creation and making it look like a normal person, instead of focusing completely on the scientific aspects. This would have allowed the creation to function in society. If the monster was able to enter society, he would not have become so furious and Frankenstein's endeavor may have been more successful.
Knowledge is a great thing and should be pursued throughout one's life. We can learn about the right way to pursue it through the mistakes of Frankenstein. People must consider what modes of knowledge are acceptable to pursue and which are meant to remain in the hands of God. The most important lesson that we can take from Frankenstein is that you cannot lose your emotional side and focus totally on obtaining knowledge. If your goal is to benefit mankind rather than harm it, you must be aware of your own humanity, feelings, and connection to others. Frankenstein was conscious of these things for most of his life, but eventually pushed them aside in order to make his monster. If knowledge overtakes the way you feel, it becomes dangerous because that is when the desire to help is lost and becomes a desire for appreciation or fame. If an act is truly selfless, I do not believe it could end in the catastrophic way that Frankenstein's did. As long as we are able to retain an unselfish desire to help, our actions will produce fitting results. Education must not overtake our intrinsic values, such as compassion for others, the desire to help others, and even simply the things that make us happy. We all must consider where the line is between good and dangerous knowledge. Reading the story of Frankenstein reminded me that during my pursuit of knowledge, the most important thing is to remain true to myself. People often say that knowledge is power. This statement is very true. I believe that if I continue to use the power knowledge brings in the right way, I will have the power to make the world a better place.