You are on page 1of 9

Weyland 1

Cassie Weyland
Ms. Soyoun Kim
English 203-513
6 May 2015
The Monsters named Knowledge and Wisdom: An Argument on Frankensteins Societal
Does knowledge enrich our society? Do humans have the capacity for wisdom? These are
two questions Mary Shelley attempts to respond to and provide a commentary on through her
novel, Frankenstein. The novel was published in 1818, a time of tumult and disarray as a result
of the recent Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812. Even with these time-specific outside
influences, Frankenstein has lasted through generations and carried its spirit along with it as a
chilling tale that revolutionized the science fiction genre. This sort of literary strength is largely
the result of the profound societal themes that make great arching claims and accusations
throughout. Most prominently, the theme of the acquisition of knowledge and its subsequent use
and repercussions permeates the novel, chiefly through its characters. The story, in essence, is
about monsters of all kinds: physical, mental, and emotional. The monsters primary source, as
will be shown, is embedded in the presence of a thirst for knowledge and a lack of wisdom.
Through Frankensteins characterization, Mary Shelley differentiates between the concepts of
knowledge and wisdom to pointedly demonize the acquisition of knowledge and make a
pessimistic statement regarding humanitys intellectual capacity in the form of wisdom.
Before making statements regarding Shelleys specific representation of the erudite
themes of Frankenstein, it is important to lay out the fundamental difference between knowledge
and wisdom so as to be able to draw back to Shelleys distinction. Knowledge refers centrally to

Weyland 2
learning, the characteristic of gaining and retaining information. However, having knowledge is
not necessarily directly correlated to possessing wisdom. Wisdom implies the ability to use
knowledge in an effective way, incorporating multiple variables into judgment. It requires large
amounts of processing, integrating, and a more encompassing intellect. According to Bertrand
Russell, although our age far surpasses all previous ages in knowledge, there has been no
correlative increase in wisdom (1). This idea is what Shelley draws upon to create the characters
of Frankenstein.
In connection now to the novel, Shelley makes an important distinction between the
concepts of knowledge and wisdom through characterization, which ultimately solidifies the
intellectual theme of the novel. By consistently providing three main characters, Robert Walton,
Victor Frankenstein, and the monster, with an enormous amount of consciousness, their decisions
and the reasoning behind them are made evident for the reader. This unique characteristic allows
Shelley to distinguish between the idea of learning or yearning to gain new information and the
active choices that are made as a result. For instance, the monster, shown to have an agreeable
disposition at the beginning of the novel, gradually learns about human disposition and behavior,
as well as the ideas of right vs. wrong and good vs. bad. From here, the reader can surmise he
had the choice of pursuing a benevolent relationship with humanity, living a life of solitude, or
engaging actively in a malicious manner out of spite. After contemplating his situation, the
reader sees him[declare] everlasting war against the species (95) and subsequently cause
destruction. Walton can be used as an example as well. In his last letters, it is evident that he can
either choose to end his perilous and misguided journey or stubbornly pursue and endanger the
lives of his crew. Walton then used his knowledge and desire to acquire knowledge to make a
decision. Thus, by clearly defining the existence of these characters choices, Shelley is able to

Weyland 3
show that not only is gaining knowledge not the end game, but that knowledge retains multiple
possibilities. The distinction between these possibilities, and the reasoning that goes into the
subsequent decision making, defines wisdom. Therefore, Shelley separates what is concrete to
the characters from the more abstract individual reasoning by allowing the reader to actively
participate in decision making via her stream of consciousness style of writing. Thus, she creates
a clear distinction between possessing or actively seeking knowledge and the nature of wisdom
to make statements on both.
Throughout the novel, Shelley utilizes the events and actions of the three main characters
to ultimately depreciate and demonize the general acquisition and pursuit of knowledge. Shelley
has a unique view of knowledge, as its representation throughout the novel is leech-like,
encroaching on every sense and parasitizing life. At one point, the monster directly addresses the
concept, saying Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once
seized on it, like a lichen on the rock (83). Through this characters internal dialogue, Shelley
introduces the idea that once knowledge is obtained, it is permanent. This permanence is used to
exemplify the importance of learning and gaining information, however the novel goes on to use
this to portray knowledge in a negative way. At no point in the story, for any of these characters,
is the acquisition or pursuit of knowledge a positive engagement. In fact, consequence and
knowledge can be closely correlated throughout the novel, particularly through the characters
actions. This is most pronounced in the case of Victor Frankenstein, wherein both the pursuit and
acquisition of scientific information and excellence through knowledge results in the creation of
his monster (literally and figuratively). Through the events that surround his demise, Victors
ambition is penalized and shone in a negative light. He himself recognizes this when he says to
Walton You seek knowledge I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be

Weyland 4
a serpent to sting you as mine has been (17). Therefore, not only is Victor used as a fundamental
example of what can happen to those who actively pursue knowledge, his awareness is utilized to
reinforce the idea that his curious and intellectually ambitious actions were a mistake. This, in
effect, reinforces Shelleys ultimate point, that knowledge is inherently dangerous. This intrinsic
value of knowledge, as Shelley portrays it, can be even better understood through the monsters
circumstance. Starting as essentially a clean slate, the reader sees knowledge (of human nature
and social interaction) transform a relatively pleasant and child-like disposition into a revengeseeking nature. This more radical representation of knowledge emphasizes the idea that it is only
capable of causing destruction, despite good-naturedness. Conclusively, Shelleys direct link
between knowledge and consequence that she communicates through the characters creates a
novel that contains heavy influences of knowledge demonization. The recurring idea that
knowledge represents a threat as a fundamentally precarious aspiration is used as a base for the
novels primary admonition.
Respectively, the novels primary message is achieved through an alternate use of the
distinction between knowledge and wisdom. The differentiation enables Shelley to create
characters that specifically explore the idea of possessing wisdom in order to locate the
fundamental source of their downfalls. While it may be fairly obvious that the novel demonizes
knowledge, many might say that Shelley does not specifically address the idea of possessing
wisdom. However, through the characters dispositions, Shelley expands beyond the rather
simple quality of aspiring to or being able to acquire knowledge to make a strong statement
regarding the nature of wisdom. It begins with the characters circumstance. Each characters
aspirations certainly have the potential for benevolent application. The creation of life could lead
to staggering medical and scientific advances, a detailed exploration of the North Pole could

Weyland 5
increase societys awareness and potential of the region, and the monsters disposition and
intellectual ability have the potential to give back and contribute to society. However, the
characters flawed nature, including characteristics such as selfishness and naivet, prevent them
from acting upon their desires and using their knowledge in a wise manner. In combining the
potential of their situation with the characters fundamental drawbacks, Shelley glaringly points
out that these characters not only lack wisdom, but also highlights the consequence of the
deficiency. Frankenstein and Walton in particular are selfishly blinded by their pursuits,
incapable of truly empathizing with other viewpoints. This can be explained by a paper published
by the University of Auckland, wherein Claudia Gomez contrasts these two characters personally
minded goals with the teachings of Paul Friere, in which knowledge cannot be a private,
individual pursuit (363). Friere stresses the importance of communication and connection in
education in order for knowledge to be viable and relevant, in effect commenting on the presence
of wisdom. Walton and Victor are in clear violation of these standards, and consequently their
subsequent lack of wisdom can be characterized. The monster, on the other hand, is nave, and
does not contain the intellectual capacity to anticipate the consequences of his actions. Although
Gomez commends the monsters approach to learning, saying that it results in his ability to
develop empathy (365), she blatantly ignores the destruction that the monster causes. Her
positive viewpoint is shared by many. Rauch even goes so far as to say that the monster
demonstrates a moral commitment to the application of knowledge in the service of humanity
(240). While some may think the monster was designed to represent a being more capable of
applying his knowledge, the latter events of the novel prove just the opposite. The monsters
fundamental character flaws cause the death and destruction of many lives. While the monster
indeed sees gaining knowledge as dialogical and uncertain (365), as Gomez puts it, this is not a

Weyland 6
good quality. In fact, it is exactly this that causes his hot temper flares and subsequent
demolition. His naivet comes to head at the end of the novel when the reader sees him dismayed
and regretful of the despair he levied on Victor that was a result of the information he had gained
on him and on humanity. Essentially, his inability to perceive significance and magnitude leads
him to a destructive occupation as a result of and in use of his knowledge. Although manifested
differently, the results of this character flaw mirror those of Walton and Victor. These three
characters are shown to have substandard character and intellectual capacity, which is ultimately
connected to their downfall in providing the mechanism for their flawed actions. Essentially,
while knowledge is directly linked to consequence, a lack of wisdom shows how this knowledge
leads to consequence. The connecting theme, therefore, with all of the characters, is that their
insufficient ability to understand and apply their knowledge is the ultimate causative entity that
produces unfortunate outcomes. Therefore, Shelley ultimately characterizes wisdom as an
elemental quality largely influenced by human disposition, linking the idea to society as a whole.
A quality that, without which, leads to poor management and employment of knowledge, and, in
using this logic, she implies that wisdom is required for the benevolent manipulation of
knowledge. Thus, in her wide and consistent application of wisdom deficient characters, and in
the inherent way that wisdom is characterized, Shelley uses Frankenstein to point out a societal
intellectual deficiency and perhaps instigate a call to action.
This being said, there is an alternate side to these despondent and foreboding statements.
Although Shelleys ultimate directive comes across as accusatory, an inflection of hope for
society retains presence in a subtle yet significant takeaway. Yes, humanity lacks wisdom, but
look at the possibilities present if a change in mindset is made. This accent of hope is
exemplified in the small moment of clarity Shelley gives to Victor. The only point in the novel

Weyland 7
where any wisdom to speak of is observed is in Victors realization of a female monsters
potential harm to society and the following destruction of his work. This benevolent act provides
a brief look into the potential of wisdom in terms of human capability. Mainly, it emphasizes the
idea there is hope in an eventual emergence of wisdom. However, there was no direct payoff to
Victors wise behavior. By not reinforcing this behavior, and further, by not creating any central
recognizably wise characters, the novel is ultimately one-sided, leaning more on its emphasis of
wisdom deficiency and the dangerous nature of knowledge than on its optimism for the future of
the human race. In fact, many articles have been written referring to the negative effect this novel
has on societys perception of knowledge, science, and other related topics. It can be seen from
the creation of a fear of science (Koren, Pazit, and Varda 141), to the general fostering of the
idea that scientists are immoral and knowledge is to be discouraged (Toumey 412). This effect
that the novel has on readers is, at the end of the day, what matters in terms of overall message.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the novels pessimistic tone, as well as accusatory and
shaming connotations are so prevalent that the underlying theme of hope is overshadowed.
However, this theme remains an important takeaway from the novel, as it connects to Shelleys
call to action. Humanity is in need for a higher level of critical thinking and analysis in everyday
life. Shelley essentially points out the difficulty, but not impossibility, of this feat. Therefore,
although I believe Shelleys intention was to point out societys impasse and ultimately inspire
hope, her pessimistic tone and one-sided storytelling overpower her call to action.
In conclusion, Mary Shelley makes some strong accusations, which undoubtedly contain
profound ideas, through her science fiction novel, Frankenstein. The diverse characters and
similar characterization were used as a vessel for Shelley to convey her thoughts on societys
intellectual standpoint. In separating the concepts of knowledge and wisdom, Shelley comments

Weyland 8
on both distinctly, however the individual ideas have similar tones in regards to their societal
accusations. The idea that knowledge is a powerful and inherently dangerous entity, as well as
the belief that human kind does not yet retain the ability to turn that knowledge into something
positive and societally useful (exercising wisdom), is representative of a rather pessimistic and
degrading perspective. Most of the time, I believe a large population would consider this
communicated idea as promoting a stagnant society, stemming the curiosity and drive to move
forward. However, given the tumult of the time period the novel was written in (Napoleonic
Wars, War of 1812), Frankenstein serves as an appropriate cautionary message. Although the
illuminating portion of Shelleys message, the idea of hope, may have been overshadowed, it is
worth entering into discussion. If hope can be seen in dark times, there must be a driving force
within us all. This, ultimately, is Shelleys gift to the world.

Weyland 9
Works Cited
Gomez, Claudia Rozas. "Strangers And Orphans: Knowledge And Mutuality In Mary Shelleys
Frankenstein." Educational Philosophy And Theory 45.4 (2013): 360-370. ERIC. Web.
13 Apr. 2015.
Koren, Pazit, and Varda Bar. "Science And Its Images--Promise And Threat: From Classic
Literature To Contemporary Students' Images Of Science And "The Scientist."
Interchange: A Quarterly Review Of Education 40.2 (2009): 141-163. ERIC. Web. 13
Apr. 2015.
Rauch, Alan. The Monstrous Body of Knowledge in Mary Shelleys Frankenstein. Studies in
Romanticism 34.2 (1995): 227-253. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Russell, Bertrand. Knowledge and Wisdom. Portraits from a Memory and Other Essays. New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. 173-177. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. 2nd ed. New York:
W. W. Norton, 1996. Print.
Toumey, Christopher P. The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of
Science. Science, Technology, & Human Values 17.4 (1992): 411-437. JSTOR. Web. 12
Apr. 2015.