Knowledge and discovery

Written at a time when the boundaries of scientific knowledge, geographical discovery and technological change were being challenged, Frankenstein looks at the key question of whether mankind can have too much knowledge and, therefore, too much power.

How is the theme of knowledge and discovery shown in the novel?

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley examines the twin ideas of knowledge and discovery. Some of the key aspects are:

  • scientific experimentation
  • language development
  • geographical discovery
How does Shelley show this?EvidenceAnalysis
Scientific experimentationVictor is shown working at a time when science had reached something of a crossroads between the old scientific methods of alchemy and the more modern ideas of science which we know today. As alchemy was based on misunderstandings, it was never actually a danger, but Shelley shows that more modern scientific practice can be hazardous precisely because it works. She also shows the reader that in the hands of someone obsessive like Frankenstein, scientific experimentation can pose real dangers.None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder. A mind of moderate capacity, which closely pursues one study, must infallibly arrive at great proficiency in that study; and I, who continually sought the attainment of one object of pursuit, and was solely wrapped up in this, improved so rapidly that, at the end of two years, I made some discoveries in the improvement of some chemical instruments which procured me great esteem and admiration at the university.Victor compares scientific study to other forms of learning but does not find anything else as satisfying; he sees it as 'continual food for discovery and wonder'. He feels that with science you can go on continuously discovering new things - that you can never know everything. However, Victor unknowingly reveals to us that he has become obsessed with one aim and that any other discoveries are almost accidental. He also reveals that he enjoys the personal glory that goes with such discoveries when he talks about achieving 'great esteem and admiration'.
Language developmentWhen it is brought to life the Monster does not automatically have the power of language but has to learn it as a child would do. By living close to the De Lacey family and observing their talk, it is able to start using speech. Later, it finds some abandoned books and is able to learn to read from these. In its later talks with Victor, the Monster shows a very sophisticated use of language and highly developed powers of reasoning.I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse; I learned and applied the words, fire, milk, bread, and wood. I learned also the names of the cottagers themselves. The youth and his companion had each of them several names, but the old man had only one, which was father. The girl was called sister, or Agatha; and the youth Felix, brother, or son. I cannot describe the delight I felt when I learned the ideas appropriated to each of these sounds, and was able to pronounce them. I distinguished several other words, without being able as yet to understand or apply them; such as good, dearest, unhappy.Just as a young child would, the Monster starts to develop its powers of language by learning the names of common objects and the people it is closest to. At this stage it is not sophisticated enough to understand how each of the people can be called different names according to the various relationships they have with each other. It then begins to learn the name for some common qualities or abstract feelings. It is, perhaps, ironic that the last of these words is 'unhappy'.
Geographical discoveryJust as the mysteries of life were still being explored at the time of writing, so there was less than full understanding of remote regions of the globe. Walton sets out to explore one such region but is eventually defeated by the powers of nature when his ship is trapped by ice. There are several other examples of wild, remote and unexplored locations in the novel: the Swiss mountains and the Orkney Islands being two key examples.What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.Writing near the start of his travels, Walton hopes to discover territories unvisited by humans, understand astronomical features and to discover the secrets of the magnetic North Pole. His tone is perhaps a little less certain than Victor's (he uses the word 'may' for instance) but both men are driven by curious natures and the desire to have their achievements recognised by mankind.

Analysing the evidence

I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me -- a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised, that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.Victor Frankenstein

How is Victor able to succeed where others have failed? Use the quote above, and your wider knowledge of the book.

  • Victor is shown to be thorough and careful in his preparations and experimentation.
  • He is determined and dedicated – he spends two years of his life creating the Monster.
  • He has a fortunate and unplanned breakthrough ('a sudden light broke in upon me').
  • Victor is prepared to take risks both in bringing together the body parts of the Monster and animating it with electrical forces (here, he is literally playing with fire).

Mary Shelley suggests that scientific discoveries are the result of a special combination of person and circumstances. Walton, who follows a similar path (but not quite to such an excess) does not succeed whereas Victor does. However, Shelley makes it clear that such success comes at a price.