Thursday, January 23, 2014

Frankenstein's Conflicting Rhetoric of Scientific Pursuit

        The purpose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is oftentimes described as being a cautionary tale. However, a close reading of Victor Frankenstein's messages reveal that he is inconsistent in his instructions to those looking to learn from him. During his recollection of creating the monster, he implores Walton to "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquisition of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." (Shelley 48). If this were Frankenstein's only message, then it would be a clear warning against the reckless pursuit of knowledge. However, it is not the sole urging that he makes in his tale. The morals which Frankenstein tries to communicate oscillate between messages of peace, tranquility and moderation, and the need to pursue science with even more rigor than he did. These changes are evident in his rhetorical style, as he both cautions against and urges onward Walton's pursuit of science.
        Victor Frankenstein continues to espouse virtues of tranquility and peace, although his own mental state seems tumultuous. When he first attempts the creation of the monster, he throws himself furiously into his work. However, Frankenstein explains to Walton that in looking back on this time in his life, he now believes "a human being in perfection ought always preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb this tranquility" (Shelley 51). This passage illustrates the contrast in Frankenstein's temperament before and after the creation of the monster and the events which accompany it. He uses didactic phrasing like "ought" and "never" (Shelley 51). Here Frankenstein is trying to teach a lesson to his audience, speaking as one who has more  knowledge from experience.
        This advice on the importance of peace and tranquility is not Frankenstein's only message. After Frankenstein finishes telling Walton his story, Walton describes the dire condition of the ship. They are stuck in the ice with unrest growing among the crew. The crew demands that Walton promise to return southward if they are lucky enough to be unfrozen, giving up their goal of reaching the North Pole. When Frankenstein hears this, he makes an impassioned speech to the crew urging them to seize the glory of their voyage and continue, no matter the risk. He reminds them that they signed up for a journey that would bring them glory because "it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident [their] fortitude was to be called forth and [their] courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these [they] were to brave and overcome" (Shelley 248). He does not encourage these sailors to be calm and peaceful, he does not preach for them to stop "any pursuit whatsoever [that would] interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections" (Shelley 51). Victor encourages these sailors to consume themselves in their voyage using impassioned rhetoric, and calls upon their honor and families to drive them to action (Shelley 248).
        These contradictions come from Victor's conflicting feelings concerning scientific pursuit. He struggles with the destruction that his monster caused as it opposes his deeply inquisitive and passionate, scientific nature. He cannot reconcile that the failure he suffered in the experiments of the monster should truly stop anyone else from attempting scientific pursuits. A serious love of the natural sciences is clearly at the core of Frankenstein's character, as he claims "more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest powers of creation" (Shelley 42). He preaches caution in the sciences, understanding intellectually that those who follow in his path will face the same risks, so he tries to pass on wisdom and warnings. However, at an emotional level, he still holds scientific progress paramount to all things, and ignores his better judgement when calling Walton's sailors to action. When Frankenstein warns Walton to maintain tranquil, he teaches, but the speech that he gives to the sailors is a fire and brimstone call to action that makes it seem that he hasn't learned the lesson himself. This specific discrepancy speaks to Frankenstein's more practical options being overshadowed by his ambitious, core beliefs.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.


Dennis Madden said...

Victor certainly refutes his cautionary musings when he encourages Walton's crew to progress forward to the north pole in the face of inevitable defeat. Your articulation of the implications of this situation was interesting in that it focused on a very strong contradiction in Victor's rhetoric, though I do think that the central body of your essay contained several 'back and forth' contradictions that clouded this conviction. You seem to go back and forth between examples of Victor's passion for science and his caution about it without really stating why the contrast between the examples is significant. Either the segregation of the cases (for passion, against passion), or allusion to why each particular example of a case is pertinent, would clarify these instances.

The relationship you chose has very strong support in the text, yet Victor's underlying intentions still offer much to explore. This topic is very rich in potential regarding possible interpretation and you begin to take advantage of that. I think that your essay could be strengthened by analyzing why Victor exhibited this supposed change of heart instead of just illustrating examples in which it is apparent. What possible reason does Victor have to lead Walton (a man showing him amazing kindness) in a disadvantageous direction? Though Victor was a bit irresponsible, I doubt that he would resort to intentionally leading his benefactor down the path of destruction. Was he behaving in a "do as I say, not as I do" manner? Suggesting reasons why Victor would potentially go back on his word could fertilize a more forceful argument.

This argument is wonderful because it has so many limbs to climb. I look forward to your further cultivation of the ideas you have presented thus far.

Adam said...

Your first paragraph is very good, with a clear, complex thesis.

Your unpacking of the specific contradiction between his rhetoric on 51 and his rhetoric on 248 is well executed. If you revise, I'd be interested especially in seeing if you have anything to say about Victor's various asides to Walton through the course of the novel - or if you want to integrate something about Walton's own rhetoric.

The final paragraph is fine, but maybe could push a little farther. In particular, I think that this is an opportunity for asking (and answering) what Victor's core beliefs really are. Is Victor interested in knowledge or in power? In humanity or in nature? The contradiction that you've set up has everything to do with these questions, and it's a good setup, but you aren't delving as deep into Victor's character as you could be (example: I'd be interested in hearing here about Victor's use of the blasted tree as a metaphor both for the power of nature, the power of science, and for his own life).

Short version: quite good, but could have pushed a little farther.