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Jeremy Keeshin

The Answer to the World

What is this paper about? You probably want to know. Why do you want to know?

Why are you intrigued by these few words? The answer is that it is inherent to the human

persona to be interested and curious to gain knowledge. Nobel Prize winning physicist

Enrico Fermi one said about the human psyche: “It is no good to try to stop knowledge

from going forward. Ignorance is never better than knowledge.” His weathered principle

of the progression of knowledge is one that has stood the test of time. This advancement

of human culture and technology is due much to this inquisitive nature of humans. In Pete

Hamill’s Snow in August, the main character Michael continues to learn about the Jewish

culture despite outside pressures pushing against him. Also, in Mary Shelley’s

Frankenstein, the protagonist Victor goes beyond realms of knowledge ever sought by

humans in order to create life, and his creation seeks intelligence as well. In both Snow in

August and Frankenstein, the expansion of knowledge, no matter what its parameters, is

better than ignorance because it helps the characters develop themselves as well as

explore new horizons.

In the novel Snow in August, the central character Michael Devlin gets absorbed

up in the troubles of his Brooklyn parish, but he continues to forward his knowledge by

befriending a rabbi, even when many of his outside influences suggest against it. The

eleven-year-old Irish Catholic Michel meets Rabbi Hirsch during a brutal blizzard, and

after consenting to be the Shabbas Goy, he agrees to help the Rabbi with his broken

English in exchange for the Rabbi teaching him Yiddish. At first Michael was tentative

about meeting the rabbi, because he knew nothing about the Jewish culture whatsoever.
Jeremy Keeshin

He was fully ignorant about their ways and he and his friends Sonny Montemarano and

Jimmy Kabinsky thought the poor rabbi was hiding some secret treasure within the walls

of the synagogue. After Michael became friends with Rabbi Hirsch, he realized there was

a treasure that the rabbi possessed, but not the kind he thought.

Michael drifted towards the books, glancing again at the woman’s face but trying

not to be too interested. He ran his fingertips over the spines of the books and

remembered some movie where a detective pushed at a bookcase and it suddenly

swiveled, opening into a secret room. “You like my treasures?” the rabbi said, and

Michael’s heart slipped. “What?” “My book,” the rabbi said, his own hand

touching the books on the second shelf, below the photograph of the dark-haired

woman. “Is all I have, but treasures, yes?” (Hamill 70).

The fascinating aspect of this scene is that Michael realizes that the books and the

knowledge that the rabbi has are his main treasures. When Michael first hears the rabbi

mention treasure, he thinks of the typical gold and silver and the like. However, when he

discerns that he is speaking of a different type of treasure, the treasure of knowledge, he

is pleasantly surprised.

Michael is the epitome of why knowledge always outdoes ignorance. Michael’s

friends and much of the parish cannot tolerate or do not respect the Jews. After Michael

witnesses Frankie McCarthy beat up the elderly Mr. G in his candy shop because he is a

Jew, Michael becomes perplexed about why people do these terrible actions. Michael

does not want to remain uninformed like the rest of the parish, so he decides to read the

Wonderland of Knowledge, the encyclopedia that his mother bought. After he reads it he

makes quite a realization: “Amazing: first came the Jews, and then the Catholics!”
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(Hamill 46). He finds this new knowledge fascinating, and he makes more of a

connection from himself to the Jews. He also makes connections from himself to Jackie

Robinson, the first black professional baseball player on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Michael

and the rabbi relentlessly follow his stats and root for him with the greatest vigor. After

the two of them went to a game and Robinson was booed, Kate Devlin “tried to explain

how there were all sorts of people in the world, and how some of them were ignorant or

afraid or full of disappointment, and how you had to pity them and pray for them”

(Hamill 227). In this explanation from his mother Michael sees a prime example of why

his knowledge about racism and unfairness is always better than ignorance.

After the tribulations in the parish amass to such a great extent, Michael uses his

expanded knowledge of the Kabbalah to create the Golem. When he can no longer

tolerate the graffiti and the beatings dealt by the Falcons, he uses his knowledge of the

Rabbi Loew story and Jewish mysticism to make the creature that would help him. Even

Michael himself could not believe what he was doing: “Was he really dressing in white,

for purity, to spend a day summoning a living creature from dirt? Was he to be like Dr.

Frankenstein?” (Hamill 351). He was like Dr. Frankenstein. He had developed from the

meager eleven-year-old to a much wiser man. He used his great knowledge to create a

being from dirt.

In Frankenstein, Victor has many of the same curious attributes that Michael

possesses. Right from the beginning of the story the reader is aware of Victor’s want to

learn about existence: “The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity,

earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were

unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember” (Shelley 22). He had
Jeremy Keeshin

this ardent desire to learn about life, and to find the answers. He wanted to explore

scientific terrain reached by none other. M. Krempe, a teacher of natural philosophy,

scolded Victor for studying these uncouth texts. These other texts, albeit not

recommended to him, still gave him knowledge in some areas, which is better than him

not knowing it at all. It can be argued that Victor was not suitable to have all of this

knowledge because he created such a terrible monster with it. However, he was able to

explore the new horizon of life and creation, which had not been dealt with prior to this.

It was not that too much knowledge corrupted Victor and later the monster, it was that an

excessive amount of hubris corrupted them both. Victor’s steaming sense of pride in

being able to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” led him to cross this

golden mean (Shelley 33). His knowledge also humbles him later in the novel when he

tells his story to Walton and cautions him not to make the same mistakes he did: “‘Are

you mad, my friend?’ said he. ‘Or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would

you also create for yourself and the world a demonical enemy? Peace, peace! Learn from

my miseries and do not seek to increase your own’” (Shelley 200). The reason that

Victor’s knowledge is still positive is because his failures allow others to learn from him.

If he were not the one to make this mistake, someone else would, and they would suffer

the consequences. People learn from Victor that an overwhelming sense of hubris that

breaks the golden mean is a recipe for calamity.

Victor’s creation goes on to seek erudition just like any other human would. He

quickly realized the interest of the intellect when he said, “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”

(Shelley 108). Shortly after this great consciousness, the creation came upon the books
Jeremy Keeshin

Paradise Lose, Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. He considers these books “treasures”

and learns infinite amounts from them (Shelley 116). These books led him to a new

understanding and questioning of himself.

As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I

found myself similar yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings

concerning whom I read and to whose conversations I was a listener…. What did

this mean? Who was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These

questions continually recurred, buy I was unable to solve them (Shelley 117).

The monster’s transcendental questioning of himself brings up his very educated nature,

contradictory to the preconceived notion of the Frankenstein monster. Suddenly when he

becomes part of this human society, he wants to know what is going on, and what he is

dealing with, and even more, he wants to know about himself. Even the monster

appreciates knowledge over ignorance.

In both novels, the development of knowledge, no matter what its restrictions,

was better than ignorance because it helped the characters grow and explore. Michael

delved into Judaism and Kabbalah, Victor toyed with the elixir of life, and the monster

observed literature and behavior, and they all came away with the same thing. They came

away with knowledge, and as Enrico Fermi said, that is better than ignorance. They all

came close to detecting the answer to the world. This metaphorical stretch is really quite

true. Fermi didn’t know the answer to the world, and neither did Michael, and neither did

Victor, but they knew where it lay. The answer to the world, although its exact longitude

and latitude is not known, lies within knowledge. That is why you read this paper.

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