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he Tree of Knowledge

by Sara Granovetter

May 25, 2002

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley warns that with the advent of science, natural philosophical questioning is not only futile, but dangerous. In attempting to discover the mysteries of life, Frankenstein assumes that he can act as God. He disrupts the natural order, and chaos ensues.

Mary Shelley goes to great lengths to emphasize the beauty and order of life when man engages in мnaturalо pursuits. She idealizes Frankenstein's home life: мI feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mindо (38). His family is orderly and wonderful. Clerval's мpresence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollectionЦI felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joyо (58). Shelley also stresses that man should feel at one with nature, not at odds with it: мWhen happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensationsо (68).

Certain occupations allow man to be at one with nature and his fellow creatures. Shelley feels that science should be useful and beneficial to mankind. Clerval, a clearly pure and benevolent character, studies languages. He loves poetry. These disciplines allow man to help others and glorify nature without questioning it. In childhood, Frankenstein's studies contained мbright visions of usefulnessо (38): мI betook myself to the mathematics, and the branches of study appertaining to that science, as being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of considerationо (41).

But Frankenstein's interests soon turned away from mathematics; he speaks of his change of mind as if an evil spirit had taken control of his brain. He begins to thirst after higher knowledge, hoping to discover the deepest mysteries of nature: мI had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repinedо (39). Frankenstein delves into these studies, hoping to мunfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creationо (47). мLife and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark worldо (52) Frankenstein succeeds in discovering the secrets of life and death, and becomes able to bestow мanimation upon lifeless matterо (51). While Frankenstein is involved in this pursuit, Shelley portrays his life as grotesque and unnatural in comparison to his childhoodуhe abandons everything that clearly made his life natural and good: мThe dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupationо (53). Frankenstein cuts off contact with his family, and no longer appreciates the glory of nature. He confines himself to a roomуhis occupation is unnatural: мWho shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the graveЦand disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frameо (53). With these descriptions, Shelley tells the reader that Frankenstein treads on forbidden groundуhe does not discover secrets, but мdisturbsо them.

When Frankenstein's completes his creation, he finally realizes the horror of what he has done. He sees immediately that his aspiration to make мa new species [that] would bless me as its creator and sourceо was far from realized. Instead, мthe beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled [his] heartо (56). His actions, performed in isolation, did nothing to better human kind, being so far removed from human nature. He realizes the full horror of what he has done in his dream, which foreshadows the chaos and destruction that is to come. He sees how horrid it is to meddle in superhuman affairs and attempt to alter natural processes. In his dream, he sees his beloved Elizabeth, and kisses her. But to his horror, she turns into his dead mother, мa shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of flannelо (57). With this image, Shelley illustrates the evil of man trying to venture into the domain of God. Frankenstein succeeds in creating life, but this creation results in nothing but death and destruction. He profanes his mother's death, and turns a vibrant life into decaying nothingness. His attempts to change life's natural boundaries can only lead to chaos. As a mortal, he cannot do what God does. He can create life, but he cannot create order. Man stepping out of his natural place can only cause disorder.

Shelley further portrays Frankenstein as a perverted God through references to Adam and Eve. The monster laments having been created by such an imperfect God. He says, мHow dare you sport thus with lifeЦ I ought to be thy Adamо (97). Frankenstein, however, is no God. The monster eventually realizes this, and reproaches Frankenstein:

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect.



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