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Moral Responsibility in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a story about the perils of knowledge and the ethical problems that arise as a consequence of scientific advancement. Victor Frankenstein attempts the unachievable: he sets out to imitate the divine act of creation. His feverish scientific research finally guides him to the desired answer to his bold question, but the actual result of his endeavoring is horrifying. Instead of creating life in a benign form, he creates a hideous monster. Frankenstein’s act of creation fails therefore in its purpose.

Instead of creating life, he creates a monster that will be rejected by society and will also become a murderer. Despite his noble intentions and ideals, Frankenstein commits a fatal and tragic error: he creates a new form of life without weighing the moral consequences of his enterprise. It is only after his work is done that the protagonist experiences the full consequences of his guilt. On the one hand, Frankenstein’s own story points to the tragic outcomes of the irresponsible deed: his entire innocent family is killed by the monster.

At the same time, the monster’s story enhances the tragedy that results from the reckless scientific quest: despite his deformity, the monster is entirely human and therefore suffers tremendously as being condemned to live outside the human society. Victor Frankenstein is the vain scientist who ventures on a dangerous journey towards the discovery of the principle of life. Animated by his belief in human infallibility, Frankenstein creates a monster meant to correct the imperfections he sees in nature.

The sin of imitating God in his mechanism of creation is arguably the most dreadful sin of all and its result can only be a monster. Created out of the vain flight of rational thought, the monster becomes an error that must be corrected. Frankenstein symbolically hunts his creature in order to put an end to the horrors that it generates. At the same time, the monster’s story significantly parallels the Biblical tale of creation. Frankenstein attempts to create life in his own image and perfect the existent form of life through his science.

Lured by the power of knowledge but also animated by vanity, he sets out to make a copy of life. However, instead of the scientific glory he expected as a result of his knowledge and unparalleled discovery, the protagonist is whirled into a nightmare. Symbolically, he loses everything while being left with a single purpose: the destruction of the monster he had created in his vanity. The responsibility Frankenstein holds does not extend only to the members of his own family, but also to the monster. The moral issues in the story are complicated by the monster’s tale.

His sufferings thus excite compassion rather than disgust: he becomes a murderer but he still elicits sympathy because he is profoundly human. Notably, despite the fact that that he is different from the human beings, the creature is also animated by the natural desires that haunt man. His curiosity leads him to learn how to speak, read, how to build a fire and finally to penetrate the mysteries of the world that surrounds him. His desire for companionship is also a mark of his humanity. Despite all this, he is not received into the human community because of his deformity. His rage is understandable and Frankenstein’s guilt is amplified.

Although the scientist knows that he must destroy the monster and prevent it from doing more harm, this act is not a moral alternative either. Frankenstein knows that, by destroying the creature, he only adds to the crime: the monster is a living, sentient being that has the right to live simply because it was created. Once he actually realizes the ethical consequences of his creation however, Frankenstein becomes paralyzed with fear and unable to face his own guilt. The process of maturation involves a gradual understanding of the failings of humanity and the responsibility he has in manipulating the knowledge he has gained through science.

Frankenstein’s experience is that of a modern Prometheus who ventures on the peaks of knowledge and attempts to steal the absolute mystery of life and creation from the hands of God. His maturation is part of the punishment he has to endure for his vanity and thoughtlessness. Endowed with absolute power given to him by his unlimited knowledge, Victor Frankenstein is eventually humiliated in his design by the dreadful consequences of his creative act. Works Cited: Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

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